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Documents show Facebook used user data as bargaining chip against competitors

Leaked documents show that Facebook used user data as a bargaining chip with its advertising partners and leveraged the data against its competitors. 

NBC News first reported on the confidential documents in April that contained Facebook’s internal communications from 2011-2015 as part of an ongoing lawsuit. The newly leaked documents — about 7,000 pages in total — shed light on how CEO Mark Zuckerberg used users’ data as leverage for company partnerships.

Facebook would reward or punish partners with user data as the main bargaining chip. The social network gave Amazon access (whitelisted) to user data to reward Amazon’s advertising spending on the platform but denied data access (blacklisted) from MessageMe under its “reciprocity policy” since Facebook saw that app as a competitor. 

Among those companies who were allowed access to user data were Hootsuite, Tinder, Venmo, Nissan, and more. Companies that were blacklisted included Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat, and other messaging apps. 

“Facebook maintained a blacklist of competitors that Zuckerberg ‘personally reviewed’ that specified their level of access to Platform APIs and any changes to the blacklist were ‘not permitted without Mark level sign off,’” part of the documents read. 

Facebook is already under an investigation by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on antitrust grounds regarding its treatment of competitors. The FTC is focusing on whether the company tried to acquire its social media rivals before they would become a threat to its business — specifically Instagram and WhatsApp.

The documents further reveal that these under-the-table moves were framed as a way to protect users’ privacy, when in fact they represented a way to unethically utilize user data. 

“Doug Purdy, Director of Engineering for Facebook Platform, writes to Facebook employees in August 2013 that because of pressure from Zuckerberg, [Javier] Olivan and [Mike] Vernal ‘the truth is that we are going to be under pressure to pull more and more user data from competitors overtime,’ particularly since Olivan ‘hates that we even give profile pics to competitive apps,’ so ultimately Facebook will land at a place where “no user data [is] given to competitors,” the documents continue. 

A Facebook company spokesperson told Digital Trends, “These old documents have been taken out of context by someone with an agenda against Facebook, and have been distributed publicly with a total disregard for U.S. law.”

The leaked documents come the same day that Facebook revealed in a blog post that third-party developers improperly accessed Facebook group data. While it’s unclear whether these developers abused members’ data, Facebook says it has since revoked access to those developers and plans to conduct audits to confirm the data has been deleted.

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