Facebook Tries to Set the Record Straight After Email Dump
Facebook, on the defensive after a trove of company emails was released detailing its approach to sharing data and undercutting competitors, pushed back on the release Wednesday afternoon, claiming “select quotes” from the emails were “cherrypicked” and misleading.
In two posts on Wednesday, one from CEO Mark Zuckerberg and another from Facebook’s communications team, the company said it was providing “more context” about the emails, which were procured as part of an ongoing lawsuit brought against Facebook by an app developer. While the documents had been placed under seal by a California judge, a British lawmaker made them public Wednesday, creating yet another media maelstrom for the already embattled social media company.
In the statements, Zuckerberg and the company’s communications arm defended Facebook’s 2014 decision to reduce the flow of data to third-pary app developers. Previously, app developers were privy to more Facebook user data, including personal data about users’ friends, something the political firm Cambridge Analytica leveraged to obtain 87 million people’s personal information in an attempt to influence the 2016 presidential election.
“In 2014, to prevent abusive apps, we announced that we were changing the entire platform to dramatically limit the data apps could access,” Zuckerberg wrote in the post. “This change meant that a lot of sketchy apps—like the quiz app that sold data to Cambridge Analytica—could no longer operate on our platform. Some of the developers whose sketchy apps were kicked off our platform sued us to reverse the change and give them more access to people’s data. We’re confident this change was the right thing to do and that we’ll win these lawsuits.”
As Adweek reported Wednesday, the trove of emails shone a light on how Facebook executives considered charging app developers for access to Facebook data and how Facebook cut off competitors’ access to data. In the emails, executives discussed the possibility of requiring app developers to pay Facebook a fee—as much as 10 cents a user, Zuckerberg at one point proposed—or provide value to Facebook in other ways, like buying ads. Facebook did not end up charging app developers to use its data, as it has repeatedly emphasized, including in its posts today.
“Instead of requiring developers to buy advertising—the option discussed in these cherrypicked emails—we ultimately settled on a model where developers did not need to purchase advertising to access APIs and we continued to provide the developer platform for free,” Facebook wrote.
In his post, Zuckerberg compared Facebook’s consideration that it charge developers to Amazon and Google but added that charging for access to the platform, and therefore the data on it, is “different from selling people’s data.”
“We’ve never sold anyone’s data,” Zuckerberg wrote.
The emails also showed that Facebook gave certain companies special access to user data while it implemented a change to its platform that stemmed the flow of Facebook user data to other app developers, a process known as whitelisting. Facebook called that process a “common practice,” especially when tech companies are testing out new features or while changes are being rolled out.
Facebook also defended its decision to cut off data to certain competitors like the now-defunct six-second-video-creating app Vine, which shut down in 2016. In the emails, Zuckerberg signed off on a decision to prevent Vine from accessing Facebook friend data the same day the app launched.
Facebook said that while its developer platform was intended “to pave the way for innovation,” it has long prevented apps from building tools that in any way “replicated our core functionality.” (Facebook, for what it’s worth, did not have a six-second-video-creation tool.)
Less than 24 hours prior to the emails’ release, Facebook updated how it treats competitors, saying the policy was “out-of-date” and that the move was “the right thing to do.”