Leaked documents show Facebook leveraged user data to fight rivals and help friends

NBC News is releasing almost 7,000 pages of leaked documents showing how Facebook treated user data as a bargaining chip with external app developers.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before the House Financial Services Committee on Oct. 23, 2019.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before the House Financial Services Committee on Oct. 23, 2019.Aurora Samperio / NurPhoto via Getty Images

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By Olivia Solon and Cyrus Farivar

A cache of leaked Facebook documents shows how the company's CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, oversaw plans to consolidate the social network's power and control competitors by treating its users' data as a bargaining chip. The documents were obtained and are being published by NBC News.

This trove comprises approximately 7,000 pages in total, of which about 4,000 are internal Facebook communications such as emails, web chats, notes, presentations and spreadsheets, primarily from 2011 to 2015. About 1,200 pages are marked as "highly confidential."

Taken together, they show how Zuckerberg, along with his board and management team, found ways to tap Facebook users' data — including information about friends, relationships and photos — as leverage over the companies it partnered with. In some cases, Facebook would reward partners by giving them preferential access to certain types of user data while denying the same access to rival companies.

For example, Facebook gave Amazon special access to user data because it was spending money on Facebook advertising. In another case the messaging app MessageMe was cut off from access to data because it had grown too popular and could compete with Facebook.

All the while, Facebook planned to publicly frame these moves as a way to protect user privacy, the documents show.

State and federal authorities are now closely scrutinizing Facebook's business practices. In October, New York Attorney General Letitia James announced that 47 attorneys general from states and U.S. territories plan to take part in a New York-led antitrust probe into Facebook. Over the summer, the House Judiciary Committee held hearings over antitrust concerns in Silicon Valley while the Federal Trade Commission also continues to examine the firm's practices.

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The documents, which NBC News first received and reported on in April, originate from a years-old lawsuit pending in state court in San Mateo County, California. In addition to internal communications, they include depositions from Facebook employees and expert witnesses (parts of which are missing) and other court filings. They remain under protective order in the civil lawsuit known as Six4Three v. Facebook.

"As we've said many times, Six4Three — creators of the Pikinis app — cherry-picked these documents from years ago as part of a lawsuit to force Facebook to share information on friends of the app's users," Paul Grewal, vice president and deputy general counsel at Facebook, said in a statement released by the company in April. "The set of documents, by design, tells only one side of the story and omits important context. We still stand by the platform changes we made in 2014/2015 to prevent people from sharing their friends' information with developers like the creators of Pikinis."

When approached Tuesday for further comment on the publication of the documents, Facebook did not respond.

Facebook has not questioned the authenticity of the documents NBC News obtained.

Zuckerberg's strategy to exert control over the app market during the time period covered by the documents triggered one Facebook employee to compare the company to villains from "Game of Thrones" and another to describe the treatment of outside app developers as "sort of unethical." But Zuckerberg's approach also earned admiration: Doug Purdy, then Facebook's director of product, described the CEO as a "master of leverage," according to the documents.

The collection appears to be the same as items obtained by the British Parliament in late 2018 as part of an investigation into Facebook.

The documents were initially anonymously leaked to the British investigative journalist Duncan Campbell, who shared them with a small handful of media organizations including NBC News, Computer Weekly and Süddeutsche Zeitung. Campbell is a founding member of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

The legal case revolves around an all-but-defunct startup known as Six4Three, which sued Facebook in 2015 after the company announced plans to cut off access to some types of user data. Six4Three's app, Pikinis, which soft-launched in 2013, relied on that data to allow users to easily find Facebook photos of their friends in bathing suits.

Six4Three claims that it was driven out of business when the social media giant cut off its access to more detailed information about Facebook users. Years earlier, Facebook had said that outside apps would compete on a "level playing field" with Facebook's own apps, but that arrangement eventually ended.

Numerous other apps besides Six4Three also faded away as a result: Lulu, an app that let women rate the men they dated; an identity fraud-detecting app called Beehive ID; and the Swedish breast cancer awareness app Rosa Bandet (Pink Ribbon).

Six4Three's founder Ted Kramer has signed a sworn declaration saying that he did not leak the documents.

In a July court filing, Facebook attorneys accused Six4Three and its previous lawyers (who have since left the case) of "orchestrating one of the largest and most damaging violations of a protective order in history."

"They developed a plan that required repeated violations of the Protective Order in this case and the subsequent orders intended to enforce the Protective Order," Facebook's lawyers said.

"They executed that plan. The result is staggering: Facebook's highly confidential information — which Facebook produced based on the premise that the Court would be able to enforce its orders if they were not followed — is spread around the world."