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In the hunt for revenue, did Facebook share more data than it disclosed?

In April, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told Congress that his platform doesn’t “sell any data to anyone.” But now, documents released by a British Parliament committee suggest the social media giant was trading access to user data in exchange for advertising dollars. Nick Schifrin speaks with the Washington Post’s Elizabeth Dwoskin for specifics on the accusations and Facebook's response.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Ever since news first broke that a political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica was able to get data from 87 million Facebook users, there have been more questions about whether Facebook sold or shared more data with other companies than it has led on publicly.

    That investigation has been continuing in Europe.

    Today, as Nick Schifrin tells us, there are new documents that show the social media giant gave other companies select access to users' data.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Judy, the documents were released by a British Parliament committee and seem to show Facebook using all of our data as a bargaining chip to increase revenue.

    The committee accuses Facebook of cutting special deals with companies like Netflix, Airbnb, and Lyft to access users' data because those companies were advertising on Facebook. Facebook restricted access to users' data to companies it deemed competition.

    The data we're talking about is users' education and religious background, also preferences, what users like and don't like.

    This matters because Facebook claimed to have restricted access to this data to all companies in 2015. And it matters because it raises questions about Facebook's interest in collecting your data and making money.

    For the record, the "NewsHour" works with Facebook on some video projects.

    To talk about all this, I'm joined by The Washington Post's Silicon Valley correspondent, Elizabeth Dwoskin, from San Francisco.

    Thank you very much for being on the "NewsHour."

    Can we start with these internal discussions in 2012? And we now have these e-mails. Facebook was figuring out how to make money. Mark Zuckerberg writes the following in October 2012: "Without limiting distribution or access to friends who use this app, I don't think we have any way to get developers to pay us at all."

    Does that show Zuckerberg thinking about users' data as some kind of bargaining chip?

  • Elizabeth Dwoskin:

    I think it does.

    You have to see the big picture here, which is, this is right after Facebook has gone public, and the media story is that they can't pivot to mobile. Are they going to make money? Their stock price was dropping.

    And so they have at the time this whole developer community, you know, tens of thousands of apps that are literally riding off the social graft. Even the Obama campaign did it. Cambridge Analytica did it.

    And they're looking and saying, we need to make money. And so they're looking at these relationships with thousands of developers. And you can see this intense bargaining that's going on between Zuckerberg and Facebook's top brass over who should get access and how, while, at the same time, what they're publicly telling developers is that all the access is free and neutral.

    And this runs up until — this debate runs through 2015, when they finally decide — 2014-2015, they finally decide to cut off access. But what we're learning is that, actually, there were whole categories of exceptions at the time.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So let's fast forward to 2018. Mark Zuckerberg is in front of Congress. This is April. And he is speaking into — in response to a question from Dean Heller, Republican of Nevada.

    Let's take a look.

  • Mark Zuckerberg:

    Well, Senator, once again, we don't sell any data to anyone. We don't sell it to advertisers, and we don't sell it to developers.

    What we do allow is people to sign into apps and bring their data — and it used to be the data of some of their friends, but now it isn't — with them. And that, I think, makes sense. That's basic data portability, the ability that you own the data, you should be able to take it from one app to another, if you would like.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Do the documents out today show that, while Facebook didn't sell data, they used the data to make money?

  • Elizabeth Dwoskin:

    The documents strongly suggest that.

    Now, the caveat is, we are seeing bits and pieces in the documents. It's not like it's a full transcript of everything Facebook ever did. But, from what we can tell, what is interesting is that privacy didn't come up that much in the documents. It was all about competition, business decisions.

    And one data — one piece of the documents that was interesting is there's this point where they talk about how they're going to cut off all developers, unless those developers spend $250,000 on their mobile app program. So that is — that's one example in the documents where they really talked about it directly.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You said the privacy didn't come up in these documents.

    Do you believe that some of the documents show that Facebook was motivated less by users' data or protecting that user data and more about maximizing profit?

  • Elizabeth Dwoskin:

    Yes, it really seems to be that way.

    At the time, the representation to the public is, these are abusive apps that are taking too much data. Well, let's step back for a second. Facebook's permissions at the time, until 2015, were so loose, that, as you heard Mark Zuckerberg's clip, if I signed into an app, I could actually be giving permission for the developer to access your profile and all of my friends' profiles, even if you guys never signed into the app.

    So they're saying, these developers abused our policies.

    In fact, the policies were incredibly loose, and developers went rampant with them. They built businesses off them.

    What you see here, and how this data trove adds to the story, is you see how there were really deep competitive reasons and business reasons why they were pulling back data. And those didn't appear to have to do very much with privacy.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Facebook has responded to these documents, of course.

    Let me read the statement: "Like any business, we had many internal conversations about the various ways we could build a sustainable business model. But the facts are clear. We have never sold people's data."

    Bottom line, what's the difference between selling the data and what they did?

  • Elizabeth Dwoskin:

    I think you have got to ask them, and they're not giving too many answers behind — beyond their own statements.

    And I have been trying, I think, since I was up this morning at 4:00 a.m. So, yes, I think they're going to have a lot of explaining to do.

    And another question around that is whether any of this violates a 2011 settlement that they have with the federal government, with the FTC, over whether they gave — whether — they were prohibited from giving developers access to data that users hadn't consented to.

    And yet you have all these apps being white-listed that got data apparently that bypassed people's permissions. So, that's going to raise a big question as well.

    And I think another interesting point that you see in the documents is, for example, the video streaming app Vine. This was a document — this was an app that exploded on the scene. It was like the birth of live video streaming from your phone.

    And Facebook managers have a conversation where they ask Zuckerberg, hey, do you think now that Vine is getting big on the scene, we should cut off their data? And Zuckerberg writes, "Yep, absolutely."

    It was very clear that there were lots of motivations around how they were brokering data that really has been such a big story since Cambridge Analytica.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Elizabeth Dwoskin, Silicon Valley correspondent with The Washington Post, thank you very much.

  • Elizabeth Dwoskin:

    Thanks for having me.

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