Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg pushed back Wednesday against emails showing the social media giant offering Netflix and other popular apps preferential access to people’s data even after it had tightened its privacy rules.
A British parliamentary committee investigating whether the social media behemoth was being used to manipulate the results of elections published 250 pages of internal Facebook documents earlier Wednesday.
They show executives holding discussions about big companies such as Netflix being granted preferential access to user data even after Facebook had tightened its privacy rules in 2014-15.
Zuckerberg featured in one email exchange from 2012 in which he mulled selling the information to developers.
The emails feature in a lawsuit filed against Facebook in a California court by the now-defunct US app developer Six4Three.
They were sealed by the presiding judge but seized by the British committee under a never-before used parliamentary enforcement procedure last month.
Zuckerberg said he was writing because he did not want the emails to “misrepresent our actions or motives.”
“Like any organization, we had a lot of internal discussion and people raised different ideas,” Zuckerberg said in a message posted on Facebook.
He did not directly address Facebook’s apparent decision to give some of the world’s most popular apps special access to friends lists and other personal information that many people want to keep private.
“Ultimately, we decided on a model where we continued to provide the developer platform for free and developers could choose to buy ads if they wanted,” Zuckerberg wrote.
But he added: “To be clear, that’s different from selling people’s data. We’ve never sold anyone’s data.”
The UK parliamentary committee headed by Damian Collins — a member of Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative Party — calls the policy of giving apps privileged information about users “whitelisting”.
“Facebook have clearly entered into whitelisting agreements with certain companies, which meant that after the platform changes in 2014/15 they maintained full access to friends data,” Collins wrote in a note accompanying the emails.
“The idea of linking access to friends data to the financial value of the developers relationship with Facebook is a recurring feature of the documents.”
The emails show Facebook holding “whitelisting” discussions with the Russian-founded dating service Wadoo and US giants such as Netflix and the cab hailing service Lyft.
Collins said his decision to ignore the US court gagging order and release the exchanges was based on “considerable public interest” in their content.
“We need a more public debate about the rights of social media users and the smaller businesses who are required to work with the tech giants,” he wrote in a Twitter post.
Zuckerberg did not condemn the emails’ publication or threaten any reciprocal measures against Collins.
“I understand there is a lot of scrutiny on how we run our systems,” Zuckerberg wrote.
“That’s healthy given the vast number of people who use our services around the world.”
Sandberg and Soros
The Facebook board of directors on Tuesday backed the social network’s number two executive Sheryl Sandberg, who is under fire for her role in pushing back against criticism of the social media giant.
The board expressed support for Sandberg in a letter to Open Society Foundations — an organization backed by philanthropist and Facebook critic George Soros — writing that: “We take issue with several points you raise.”
Facebook’s second-in-command Sandberg, long seen as the “adult” at the youthfully-managed firm, has found herself the center of a controversy over how the social network sought to counter criticism by Soros and others.
A prominent feminist and author with strong political connections, Sandberg has drawn fire in particular over an embarrassing effort to probe Soros, the billionaire investor, after he assailed the online network as a “menace to society.”
Facebook acknowledged last week that Sandberg asked her staff to conduct research on the Hungarian-born billionaire following his remarks early this year, out of concern that he held a “short” position that would profit from a decline in shares.
“As is to be expected following an attack from such a well-known and widely respected figure, Facebook staff immediately initiated research to attempt to understand the motivations driving the criticism, financial or otherwise,” the board said in the letter, which was in response to one received from the foundation.
That research was already taking place when Sandberg sent an email asking if Soros had shorted Facebook stock, the board added, saying her question “was entirely appropriate given her role” as chief operating officer.
Sandberg is a member of the Facebook board, as Zuckerberg, who has consistently voiced support for the COO.
The 49-year-old Sandberg has long been seen as a stabilizing force at Facebook, led by 34-year-old Zuckerberg, whose early mantra had been to “move fast and break things.”
Among the tech whiz kids, Sandberg as chief operating officer offered a steadier hand as a result of her background working for former US Treasury secretary Larry Summers and the philanthropic arm of Google.
She is also the author of the feminist bestseller “Lean In.”
Earlier this year, she was dispatched to testify in Congress to defend Facebook’s efforts in dealing with misinformation and manipulation, in the wake of a scandal over user data hijacked by the Cambridge Analytica consultancy linked to Donald Trump.