Facebook kept providing user data to several corporate partners well after the date in 2015 that executives have claimed it had shuttered access to it, the Wall Street Journal reports.
News that some firms got special treatment, and inconsistencies in Facebook’s own public testimony about when and how it changed its data-access agreements, is likely to fuel ongoing scrutiny of the social media platform.
The company has been in the hot seat with lawmakers and consumer advocates on multiple continents for more than a year, after investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 election revealed Facebook was a hot zone for political manipulation throughout that campaign.
The newly revealed special agreements allowed certain firms to continue accessing detailed data on users, including meta-analyses generated by Facebook itself that are useful to advertisers and app developers, long after the 2015 hard-stop it has previously said it imposed on those agreements.
Neither individual users nor the special-deal firms’ competitors would have been likely to understand what data was being furnished to whom by Facebook in those agreements.
“I don’t think anyone would have a reasonable understanding of how widespread this was,” Georgetown law professor and consumer rights expert David Vladeck told The Journal.
He added that Facebook had committed to new privacy disclosure notices to users in a 2012 settlement with the Federal Trade Commission, suggesting the later data-sharing agreements with companies might have skirted those new lines. Facebook told the paper its special extended-use data access deals adhered to the settlement rules.
But the heart of Facebook’s trouble in the new revelations, is more likely to come from app makers and other corporate actors than from individual privacy advocates. The site has been sued in the past for giving large firms preferential access, with smaller developers claiming anticompetitive harm.
“Ninety-nine percent of developers were treated the same, but one percent got special treatment because they accounted for all the value of the platform,” an unnamed Facebook insider told The Journal.
The rapid quest for monetization at Zuckerberg’s swift-growing social empire likely helped drive such dealmaking. The same thirst for profitability may explain how Facebook became so open to exploitation as a political weapon too.
If the company’s internal mentality hinged on helping any firm that showed buzzy user engagement to reach as deeply into user data as it cared to, as the Journal’s reporting suggests, then it stands to reason that intentional “psy-ops” aimed at election season politics would have been encouraged rather than scrutinized — provided they were associated with user metrics that could help Facebook’s arguments to investors and stock pickers.
Companies that got extensions past the data access cut-off Facebook has claimed include Nissan, the Royal Bank of Canada, and a vendor who used the site’s tools to help sell Fiats.