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Oscar Williams

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Parliament publishes confidential Facebook documents

Facebook continued to provide developers with access to some information about their users’ friends after overhauling its privacy policy in 2014/15, confidential internal documents published by parliament claim.

The confidential documents, which were seized by MPs from an app developer who is currently suing the company, also suggest that the platform changes were at least partly driven by financial motives, according to Damian Collins, the chair of the fake news inquiry.

“It is clear that increasing revenues from major app developers was one of the key drivers behind the Platform 3.0 changes at Facebook,” the backbench Conservative MP wrote in an introductory note to the files. “The idea of linking access to friends [sic] data to the financial value of the developers relationship with Facebook is a recurring feature of the documents.”

Facebook has since issued a lengthy rebuttal saying the information shared with whitelisted developers was limited to friends’ lists, and included only names and profiles pictures. It has also contested claims that it required developers to buy advertising. “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,” it said.

When the Cambridge Analytica revelations were published in March, Facebook sought to defend its approach to privacy by talking up the platform changes. At the time, its deputy general counsel, Paul Grewal, wrote a blog noting that in 2014 the company “made an update to ensure that each person decides what information they want to share about themselves, including their friend list”.

But in a tweet posted on Wednesday afternoon, Damian Collins said that the documents “raise important questions about how Facebook treats users data, their policies for working with app developers, and how they exercise their dominant position in the social media market”.

Facebook told NS Tech that the documents were presented by Six4Three, the app developer suing the firm, “in a way that is very misleading without additional context”.

“We stand by the platform changes we made in 2015 to stop a person from sharing their friends’ data with developers,” the company added. “Like any business, we had many of internal conversations about the various ways we could build a sustainable business model for our platform. But the facts are clear: we’ve never sold people’s data.”

The documents also indicate that “Facebook knew that the 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 would be controversial”, Collins wrote. The social network therefore made it “as hard as possible for users” to find out, he added. Facebook said in its statement the feature is “opt in for users and we ask for people’s permission before enabling”.

Another of the allegations detailed in the documents is that the social network used an Israeli analytics company called Onavo to “conduct global surveys of the usage of mobile apps by customers, and apparently without their knowledge”, Collins wrote. The data was allegedly used to assess how often people used different apps and whether they should be acquired or treated as a threat. The social network said it had always been clear when people download Onavo “about the information that is collected and how it is used, including by Facebook”.

The company also used data to take “aggressive positions against apps”, Collins wrote. Facebook said it had taken the decision to restrict apps built on top of its platform that “replicated our core functionality”, but that “these kinds of restrictions are common across the tech industry”.

Last month, Facebook announced it would appeal a £500,000 fine from the Information Commissioner’s Office, on the basis that the regulator found no evidence British data was passed on to Cambridge Analytica. The latest documents risk further prolonging the saga.

Update: This story was updated on 6 December to include more information about Facebook’s response to the publication.