At the end of 2018, in a dramatic series of events, lawmakers in England had a sergeant-at-arms storm to an American tech executive’s hotel room and insisted on the release of confidential documents from his company’s ongoing lawsuit against Facebook. Then, in the style of vigilante hackers, the lawmakers posted many of those court-sealed records, exposing hundreds of pages of internal Facebook emails and revealing how the company actually feels about issues like user privacy.
But apparently, the lawmakers didn’t post all the seized documents because on Friday, more internal emails started trickling out. Nearly 100 new pages, first reported by Computer Weekly, include court filings and internal discussions by Facebook employees, including CEO Mark Zuckerberg, about how to charge developers for access to Facebook users’ data, how to make more money off gaming apps, special access to Facebook data for whitelisted partners, and an emergency breach of some kind that appeared to involve Zuckerberg’s Facebook account.
While it’s previously been reported that Facebook considered selling user data, these emails reveal exactly what they wanted to charge for: instant personalisation, showing who was friends with who, and “coefficient”—Facebook’s term for rating which of your friends you care about the most.
In an internal email, Facebook employees discussed how to sell user data
Screenshot: Six4Three lawsuit discovery
Mark Zuckerberg discussed premium access to users’ data in a 2012 email
Zuckerberg, in 2012, discussing how much Facebook could make by charging developers pulling down a lot of Facebook user data
Ultimately, Facebook decided not to proceed with the user data sale at that time. In 2012, Mark Zuckerberg wrote an email saying it was better to offer the data for free in exchange for “full reciprocity” from developers, meaning they would need to feed data about users back to Facebook, though Zuck said Facebook might create a “premium service” at a later time “for things like instant personalisation and coefficient.” He also says that Facebook could start charging developers who are pulling down a lot of data through Facebook’s API, charging them from $US100 ($140) to “$US10m” with the goal of “controlling costs and make us some money if we want.”
The most interesting thing about these new documents is how they became public. This time, the documents appeared on a Github page operated by “Buxton the Red,” a.k.a. Matt Fowler, a programmer based in England. The new documents were publicized on Twitter Friday by an investigative journalist named Duncan Campbell, who said they are part of “1.5 million pages” that Facebook had to produce as part of the lawsuit against it.
It’s unclear how Fowler got these documents. Reached via a Reddit account listed on the Github page, Fowler confirmed the new documents are “part of the material seized by the UK Parliament officials in November 2018.” In response to the Reddit message, journalist Campbell emailed me, cc’ing Fowler, and said the recent documents — “the new ones yesterday and others which may come”—are leaks.
The lawsuit that caused these documents to come out in the first place was filed in 2015 by a start-up called Six4Three, which made an app called Pikinis that charged $U3 to pull all the photos of your friends on Facebook wearing bikinis or speedos. Facebook shut the app’s access to friends’ photos down, so it sued for $140 million. (Yeah, there are no good guys here.)
“Like the other documents that were cherrypicked and released in violation of a court order last year, these by design tell one side of a story and omit important context,” said a Facebook spokesperson, who pointed to a blog post Facebook published when the UK Parliament first published a portion of the seized documents in December. “As we’ve said, these selective leaks came from a lawsuit where Six4Three, the creators of an app known as Pikinis, hoped to force Facebook to share information on friends of the app’s users. These documents have been sealed by a Californian court so we’re not able to discuss them in detail.”
The documents released so far do seem to bolster Six4Three’s contention that Facebook treats different players differently granting varying degrees of access to user data, a theme that has also emerged in recent reporting about the company.
“[W]e enforce our policies against competitors much more strongly,” Zuckerberg writes in one email. “[F]or bigger social companies we might otherwise be worried about, if they’re enabling their users to push all their social content back into Facebook, then we’re probably fine with them. However, for folks like WeChat, we need to enforce a lot sooner.”
Six4Three’s case is due to go to trial in California in April, and the judge is not happy that confidential documents were turned over to UK Parliament and are being splashed across the internet. “What has happened is unconscionable,” the judge said last week, reports The Guardian. “It shocks the conscience.”
While it may ‘shock the conscience,’ it certainly titillates Facebook watchers for whom the company’s machinations are often a mystery.