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Seven things we learned from the confidential emails that Facebook tried to keep secret

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 06/12/2018 Laurence Dodds
a group of people sitting at a table: An empty chair for Mark Zuckerberg at a House of Commons hearing on November 27 © Gabriel Sainhas/House of Commons/AP An empty chair for Mark Zuckerberg at a House of Commons hearing on November 27

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On Wednesday Parliament released a trove of confidential documents from inside Facebook that shed light on its business, its dealing with competitors and its attitude to privacy.

The company has gone to great lengths to keep the emails secret, convincing a US court to put the documents under seal and then to seize the laptop which was used to transfer them to British MPs. 

It says the documents do not represent the totality of its internal discussions because they were "cherry-picked" as part of a lawsuit against the social network, and that, "by design", they tell "tell only one side of the story and omit important context". 

But Damian Collins, chairman of the House of Commons committee that is investigating Facebook's role in spreading fake news, said there was "considerable public interest" in releasing the documents.

Here are seven things we learned.

Video: Facebook Documents Released In The United Kingdom (NowThis News)

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Facebook did sell user data – just not for money

"The facts are clear," said Facebook in its response to these documents: "We've never sold people's data." Mark Zuckerberg agreed: "We've never sold anyone's data."

This is true, in the sense that Facebook did not take any money to give anyone user data. The company says it did not, in the end, go forward with a plan to ask app developers to spend $250,000 a year through its advertising tools to maintain access to its users. Mr Zuckerberg, in any case, says this was a fee for using Facebook's systems, which is "different from selling people's data". 

But what it did do is require companies to commit to "reciprocity", meaning that any developer pulling data from Facebook's systems needed to give their users the option to share content back into Facebook.

In an email in November 2012, Mark Zuckerberg outlined the rationale for this. Facebook's platform, he said, "takes a user and turns them into a more engaged user through adding real identity and social connections to them. This is real value and it's different from anything else we do."

KRAKOW, POLAND - 2018/12/05: Facebook  logo is seen on an android mobile phone. (Photo by Omar Marques/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images) © Getty KRAKOW, POLAND - 2018/12/05: Facebook logo is seen on an android mobile phone. (Photo by Omar Marques/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

A memo similarly describes reciprocity as "an equable value exchange between a third-party developer and Facebook", involving "high-quality experiences" for Facebook users or direct payments "in return" for "access to out Platform".

Though the direct payments never came to pass, the point is that Facebook knew that its users were valuable to other companies, and believed that it should receive equal value for making them available. In other words, it exchanged user data for other considerations. Many people would call that "selling". 

Mark Zuckerberg wanted to copy the banking industry

Another plan which Facebook never put into practice was outlined by Mark Zuckerberg in an email in October 2012, where he suggests charging developers "a lot of money – perhaps on the order of $0.10 per user per year" – for access.

"I've been reading a lot of books on finance and banking recently," he wrote in that email, "and even though the idea of an information bank is not identical to a financial bank, the comparison suggests some interesting things.

"For example, banks charge you interest for as long as you have their money out. Rather than letting devs pay a one time fee to fetch data, we could effectively do this by mandating that devs must keep data fresh and update their data each month for anything they call.

A campaigner from a political pressure group wears an oversized mask of founder and CEO of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg after he failed to attend a meeting on fake news held by Parliament's Digital, Culture Media and Sport committee in London November 27, 2018.  REUTERS/Toby Melville © Reuters A campaigner from a political pressure group wears an oversized mask of founder and CEO of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg after he failed to attend a meeting on fake news held by Parliament's Digital, Culture Media and Sport committee in London November 27, 2018. REUTERS/Toby Melville

"Another idea is charging different developers different rates for things. The whole banking industry is based on charging people different rates. It may be that instead of having a flat fee for everyone, we should instead try to set a norm where there's some range."

Facebook used its data to choke its competitors

A memo describing Facebook's plan for "Platform 3.0", the new version of its app platform, makes it very clear that the company won't share user data with companies it does not want to.

"When considering the implications of reciprocity it is important to note that a second order principle quickly emerges: competitive access," it says. "There are a small number of developers whom no amount of sharing to Facebook or monetary value can justify giving them access to Platform. 

"These developers do not want to participate in the ecosystem we have created, but rather build their own ecosystem at the expense of our users, other developers and, of course, us. That is something we will not allow."

KRAKOW, POLAND - 2018/10/29: Facebook logo is seen on an android mobile phone. (Photo by Omar Marques/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images) © Getty KRAKOW, POLAND - 2018/10/29: Facebook logo is seen on an android mobile phone. (Photo by Omar Marques/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

What did this mean in practice? Step forward Vine, a highly entertaining six-second video app launched by Twitter in January 2013 but eventually shut down in 2017. Facebook made it impossible for Vine users to see which of their Facebook friends were using the app.

"Twitter launched Vine today, which lets you shoot multiple short video segments to make one single, 6-second video," wrote Justin Osofsky, vice president of global operations, at the time of Vine's launch. "Unless anyone raises objections, we will shut down their friends API access today. We've prepared reactive PR..."

Mark Zuckerberg responded: "Yup, go for it." 

The next day, Facebook published a blog post explaining that it would block access for "apps that are using Facebook either to replicate our functionality or bootstrap their growth in a way that creates little value for people on Facebook."

Zuckerberg kept a list of enemies

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks during a press conference in Paris on May 23, 2018. (Photo by BERTRAND GUAY / AFP)        (Photo credit should read BERTRAND GUAY/AFP/Getty Images) © Getty Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks during a press conference in Paris on May 23, 2018. (Photo by BERTRAND GUAY / AFP) (Photo credit should read BERTRAND GUAY/AFP/Getty Images)

Which companies did Facebook cut off access to? According to a memo, the final decision came from Mr Zuckerberg. 

"We maintain a small list of strategic competitors that Mark personally reviewed," says the document. "Apps produced by the companies on this list are subject to a number of restrictions outlined below. Any usage beyond that specified is not permitted without Mark-level sign-off."

Companies on this list would be denied all ad services and app services, though they would be allowed to let their users log in using their Facebook accounts.

Staff discussed how to gather data without asking permission

Back in 2015, Facebook released an update to its Messenger app on Android that collected users' phone call logs. This policy proved controversial – and now we can see that Facebook's staff knew that it would.

"We think the risk of PR fallout here is high," said Michael LeBeau, then a product manager for Facebook's location-based advertising service, which uses Bluetooth beacons located inside businesses to track Facebook users' coming and going.

KRAKOW, POLAND - 2018/11/27: Facebook log in panel is seen on an android mobile phone. (Photo by Omar Marques/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images) © Getty KRAKOW, POLAND - 2018/11/27: Facebook log in panel is seen on an android mobile phone. (Photo by Omar Marques/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

"Screenshots of the scary Android permissions screen," he speculated, would become "a meme", leading "enterprising journalists" to write stories with headlines such as "Facebook uses new Android update to pry into your private life in ever more terrifying ways" (how did he guess?).

But Yul Kwon, then Facebook's deputy chief privacy officer, and incidentally a famous TV host who emerged victorious from the thirteenth season of the American reality series Survivor, claimed to have a partial solution.

By only requesting one kind of permission, he said, Facebook could "upgrade users without subjecting them to an Android permissions dialogue at all." He said engineers were testing whether this was true across all versions of Android.

That appears to back up claims by the news site Ars Technica that Facebook did not properly ask permission for some of this activity. Facebook claimed that phone log collection "has always been opt-in only", but Ars said the permission to read call logs had been bundled into a more general request which did not specifically mention call logs.

Facebook used your phone to scope out rivals

In 2013, Facebook bought Onavo, an Israeli company offering apps to control and minimise your smartphone data consumption in return for information about what apps you actually use and how long you use them for. It now appears that Facebook used the data it got from Onavo to keep an eye on potential competitors and figure out which ones it needed to buy. 

A chart included in an "industry update" presentation based on Onavo data shows the number of messages sent using Whatsapp every day skyrocketing above the equivalent figure for Facebook on mobile. Another chart shows Whatsapp's engagement time behind Facebook's but ahead of Messenger's. 

That was in March 2013. Eleven months later, in February 2014, Facebook bought Whatsapp for a gigantic $19 billion. 


It's all about user growth

Facebook did in the end decide not to charge anyone money for Facebook's users. According to Mr Zuckerberg, though, that wasn't because of any ethical objection; it was because not charging would in the end be better for Facebook's bottom line.

"There's a clear tension between platform ubiquity and charging [for access]," he wrote. "We want the platform to be ubiquitous and strongly encourage sharing back to Facebook," he wrote. 

"My sense is there may be some price we could charge that wouldn't interfere with ubiquity, but this price wouldn't be enough to make us real money. Conversely, we could probably make real money if we were willing to sacrifice ubiquity, but that doesn't seem like the right trade here."

It's not clear how closely this justification applied to Facebook's final decision on how to manage its platform. But it is a wider philosophy that is visible across Facebook's business.

Almost every time Facebook has a choice between charging people money and giving them something for free in order to gain as many users as possible, it opts for the latter choice – whether it's encrypted messaging on Whatsapp, third world internet access or Facebook itself. 

It has always described this as an idealistic mission to "connect the world", and perhaps it is. But it is also, and always has been, the best way that Facebook thinks it can make itself unstoppable.

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