UK Gov pulls back the curtain on Facebook data policies

With pressure mounting against Facebook over the last few months it was only a matter of time before a treasure trove of treachery was unveiled; the UK government has done just that.

Considering the breadth and depth of the information revealed by Damian Collins, a MP and Chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, and the likelihood this is only scratching the surface, it’ll be some time before we discover the full impact. But, the door has been opened. For Facebook, the PR machine will have to find another gear as this will take some battling.

“As we’ve said many times, Six4Three – creators of the Pikinis app – cherrypicked these documents from years ago as part of a lawsuit to force Facebook to share information on friends of the app’s users,” Facebook said in a statement. “The set of documents, by design, tells only one side of the story and omits important context.”

Facebook is standing by changes made in 2014 which prevented developers seizing personal information of user’s friends, those who had not opted in. This is effectively the saga which kicked off the entire Cambridge Analytica scandal. Facebook argues Six4Three didn’t receive a temporary extension, allowing the app to continue operating while the changes were implemented, and the court case is manufactured revenge.

The Six4Three lawsuit is where Collins and his Committee managed to get their hands on the documents which have been unveiled here. Officials compelled Six4Three CEO Ted Kramer to hand over the documents while on a business trip to London. The documents were obtained as part of a legal discovery process brought about through Six4Three’s lawsuit against Facebook.

The documents are quite damning, suggesting Facebook used user personal information as a commodity, offering the team a useful bargaining chip to secure more attractive contracts, while also nipping any competitive threats before momentum was gathered. For Facebook, this should be considered a nightmare, and it seems investors agree. At the time of writing share price had dropped by 2.7% in overnight trading.

While these reports might not come as a surprise to those who work in the technology space, the general public are unlikely to find these reports very appealing. Facebook crafts an image of itself as a business which wants to help society, though these documents creates a perception of millionaires viewing the user as nothing more than a number, trading away information which doesn’t really belong to them. This idea will not be well-received by the general public.

Looking at the specifics of the documents, apps were invited to use Facebook just as long as it improved the Facebook brand, while some competitors were not allowed to use Facebook tools without the specific sign-off of CEO Mark Zuckerberg himself. One of these examples is Vine, which could be viewed as a means to obstruct rivals. Those who are legally-minded will know this could cause all sorts of problems for the social media giant.

Facebook has clearly recognised this is an issue as well. As part of its statement, Facebook has said it prevented apps which replicate the core functionality of its platform from reaping the full benefits, though it plans to remove this ‘out of date’ policy as soon as possible.

This is of course on concession Facebook is making, though there will have to be a hell of a lot more over the coming months. These documents are damning of the attitudes towards data privacy and also Facebook’s own policies. The lawmakers are sharpening their sticks and it won’t be long before they start taking more accurate aims at a firm which has done little to aid investigations, dodging meaningful questions like perfectly crafted PR ninjas.

One of the biggest recurring themes of the documents is the value which has been placed on data obtained through user’s friends. The idea of linking financial value to the developer’s ability to gain access to friend’s data is one of the key issues being raised by Collins. Some might suggest this goes against repeated statements from Facebook that it was unaware its platform was being abused.

This is the issue. Facebook has continually proclaimed its innocence, accepting criticisms that it should have done more, but ultimately the blame for abuse should be directed elsewhere. These documents suggest the social media giant was not only aware of the abuses but debated and understood the controversial nature. This does appear to be a complete contradiction of the firm’s previous stance.

Another example of this is an update made to changes to its policies on the Android mobile phone system, which enabled the Facebook app to collect a record of calls and texts sent by the user.

Perhaps this suggests a breach of trust during internal meetings and email exchanges, but it also damages the brand credibility of Facebook moving forwards. Facebook is in a hole right now, there’s no doubt about that.