Facebook considered charging companies for access to user data — now Mark Zuckerberg says it was because of Apple's restrictions on iPhone apps

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  • Explosive documents show that in 2012 Facebook internally considered charging developers for access to its platform, which enables them to see and collect user data.
  • In a public post, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the discussions were because Apple’s restrictions on what iPhone developers can do threatened its business model.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has issued a response to a large cache of sensitive Facebook documents published by the British Parliament on Wednesday. In the documents, which include internal presentations, emails, and sensitive strategy memos, Facebook leaders are seen discussing whether Facebook should charge other companies for access to its developer platform, which allowed apps to access Facebook friends, likes, and other data. Many of the documents are from 2012 and earlier, and Facebook ended up deciding not to charge third-party developers, but the Parliament documents are among the first first public evidence that the social networking giant considered selling access to its trove of user data.

In a lengthy, confrontational post on Facebook, Zuckerberg said that many of the discussions were prompted by Apple’s tight restrictions on what third-party apps can do on iPhones and iPads. “Back when the main way people used Facebook was on computers, we supported the platform by showing ads next to developers’ apps on our website,” Zuckerberg wrote. “But on mobile, Apple’s policies prevent us from letting apps run within Facebook and apps take the whole screen anyway, so we needed a new model to support this platform to let people log in and connect with other apps.” “Like any organization, we had a lot of internal discussion and people raised different ideas,” he continued.

Of course, Apple’s iPhone is only one of two major options for smartphone users. Many more people use Android, which doesn’t restrict app developers as sharply as Apple’s iOS does. The documents revealed by Parliament suggest that Facebook took advantage of relatively lax security features on Android to obtain call log data from users to “improve things like [People You May Know], coefficient calculation, and feed ranking.”

2) Facebook engineered ways to access user’s call history w/o alerting users:

Team considered access to call history considered ‘high PR risk’ but ‘growth team will charge ahead’. @Facebook created upgrade path to access data w/o subjecting users to Android permissions dialogue. pic.twitter.com/Oth6WF2oVa

— ashkan soltani (@ashk4n) December 5, 2018

The British Parliament published the documents as part of an inquiry into the Cambridge Analytica scandal after seizing them from an entrepreneur who had received the internal Facebook trove as part of a lawsuit against the social networking giant. Apple CEO Tim Cook and Zuckerberg have been feuding over data and user privacy for years, despite the fact that the two tech giants are Silicon Valley neighbors with many of the same users. Last month, Facebook confirmed the conflict in a official company statement.

The full text of Zuckerberg’s post is reproduced below:

This week a British Parliament committee published some internal Facebook emails, which mostly include internal discussions leading up to changes we made to our developer platform to shut down abusive apps in 2014-2015. Since these emails were only part of our discussions, I want to share some more context around the decisions we made.

We launched the Facebook Platform in 2007 with the idea that more apps should be social. For example, your calendar should show your friends’ birthdays and your address book should have your friends’ photos.

Many new companies and great experiences were built on this platform, but at the same time, some developers built shady apps that abused people’s data. In 2014, to prevent abusive apps, we announced that we were changing the entire platform to dramatically limit the data apps could access.

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.

At the same time as we were focusing on preventing abusive apps, we also faced another issue with our platform — making it economically sustainable as we transitioned from desktop to mobile. Running a development platform is expensive and we need to support it. Back when the main way people used Facebook was on computers, we supported the platform by showing ads next to developers’ apps on our website.

But on mobile, Apple’s policies prevent us from letting apps run within Facebook and apps take the whole screen anyway, so we needed a new model to support this platform to let people log in and connect with other apps.

Like any organization, we had a lot of internal discussion and people raised different ideas. Ultimately, we decided on a model where we continued to provide the developer platform for free and developers could choose to buy ads if they wanted. This model has worked well.

Other ideas we considered but decided against included charging developers for usage of our platform, similar to how developers pay to use Amazon AWS or Google Cloud. To be clear, that’s different from selling people’s data. We’ve never sold anyone’s data.

Of course, we don’t let everyone develop on our platform.

I mentioned above that we blocked a lot of sketchy apps. We also didn’t allow developers to use our platform to replicate our functionality or grow their services virally in a way that creates little value for people on Facebook. We restricted a number of these apps, and for others we asked developers to provide easy ways for people to share their content outside of their apps and to Facebook if they wanted.

We’ve focused on preventing abusive apps for years, and that was the main purpose of this major platform change starting in 2014.

In fact, this was the change required to prevent the situation with Cambridge Analytica. While we made this change several years ago, if we had only done it a year sooner we could have prevented that situation completely.

I understand there is a lot of scrutiny on how we run our systems. That’s healthy given the vast number of people who use our services around the world, and it is right that we are constantly asked to explain what we do.

But it’s also important that the coverage of what we do — including the explanation of these internal documents — doesn’t misrepresent our actions or motives.

This was an important change to protect our community, and it achieved its goal.

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