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A new trove of internal Facebook emails is a stark reminder: You are Facebook’s product

Facebook’s business is built on collecting and capitalizing on peoples’ personal information.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg
Alex Wong / Getty

Your personal data has always been the key to Facebook’s business — and Facebook executives, including CEO Mark Zuckerberg, have used access to that personal data to strengthen strategic partnerships and hurt competitors over the years. At one point, Zuckerberg even considered selling users’ personal data to outside app developers.

That much was clear from a new trove of internal Facebook emails and other documents released by British lawmakers Wednesday. The documents had previously been sealed as part of an ongoing lawsuit filed against Facebook in California, but were made public by Britain’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, which collected the documents last week.

“I believe there is considerable public interest in releasing these documents,” tweeted Damian Collins, the committee’s chair. “They raise important questions about how Facebook treats users data [sic], their policies for working with app developers, and how they exercise their dominant position in the social media market.”

The emails, which mostly date from 2012 to 2015, include conversations from Facebook’s top executives about the company’s developer tools and data-sharing practices before widespread changes were made to limit access to some user data in early 2015.

A Facebook blog post says the emails were “cherrypicked” from the lawsuit and represent “only one side of the story.”

“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,” Zuckerberg wrote in a Facebook post published Wednesday. “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.”

The emails aren’t necessarily scandalous, but they do offer a glimpse into how Facebook thinks about user data, and how access to that data was core to Facebook’s success and business.

Facebook considered selling user data

One of the biggest misperceptions about Facebook is that the company sells your personal information. In reality, Facebook uses that personal information to target you with advertising, but it holds onto the bulk of the data itself.

But in 2012, Zuckerberg suggested that Facebook charge some outside developers for accessing and collecting data on users through the company’s APIs, software that allows Facebook to share data with other apps.

“If we make it so devs can generate revenue for us in different ways, then it makes it more acceptable for us to charge them quite a bit more for using platform,” Zuckerberg wrote. He suggested that developers could offset these charges by spending money on Facebook ads.

Facebook ultimately decided not to charge for this kind of data sharing, but the consideration is a reminder of how Facebook has built an entire business on peoples’ personal information.

“Like any organization, we had a lot of internal discussion and people raised different ideas,” Zuckerberg wrote on his Facebook page Wednesday. “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.”

Facebook used personal data to strengthen — or weaken — competitors

Access to the personal information of billions of people has put Facebook in a very powerful position. The emails show that the company used access to that information as a bargaining chip with potential competitors.

In some cases, Facebook granted other businesses, like Netflix and Lyft, special permission to access information that other companies didn’t have. In other instances, Facebook cut competitors off. When Twitter launched the video service Vine in 2012, Facebook cut off access to its friend graph. That meant users who signed up for Vine with their Facebook account couldn’t see and connect with all of their Facebook friends inside Vine, an ability that would have theoretically helped Vine create a network much faster.

In another email Zuckerberg sent in November 2012, he suggested Facebook “enforce our policies against competitors much more strongly.”

It’s not a surprise that Facebook would limit its data sharing in a way that didn’t boost up competitors. It would be more surprising if Facebook hadn’t done this. But again, the underlying theme here is that Facebook’s competitive business advantage lies in having access to people’s personal information, an important understanding at a time when regulatory bodies are likely looking at Facebook’s competitive practices more closely now than ever.

Facebook knew there were risks in peddling users’ private information

Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica fiasco, in which a third-party research firm gained access to the personal information of tens of millions of Facebook users without their permission, raised a number of questions about the company’s data-sharing policies.

One of the most important was whether or not Facebook was ignorant about the risks of sharing user data, or just didn’t care about them.

Wednesday’s email dump makes it look like Facebook didn’t really care. In the email from Zuckerberg mentioned above, he acknowledged that making Facebook’s sharing tools free would lead to “abuse.”

“Not charging still means people will overuse and abuse our APIs and waste money for us,” he wrote to many of the company’s top executives. “I still think we should implement some kind of program where you have to pay if you use too many of our resources.”

It’s not entirely clear what Zuckerberg meant by “abuse” — it’s hard to imagine he foresaw that issues like Cambridge Analytica would arise the way they did. But it’s also clear that his concern wasn’t what that abuse might mean for users. The fear was that abusing the APIs would hurt Facebook’s business.

What’s the takeaway?

You could easily walk away from this email dump and think, “This is just how ruthless businesses work.” That’s true, and Facebook has proven that it is very, very good at making money from the personal information it collects from its users.

But Facebook has always positioned itself as a mission-driven company out to make the world a better place. It wasn’t just another win-at-all-costs business, but the place where you post your baby photos and stay in touch with your friends from college. Facebook’s product created a level of intimacy that others did not.

What we’ve learned over the past month — from Facebook’s dealings in Washington to its relationship to oppo research firms to Wednesday’s email dump — is that Facebook is a ruthless business, and your personal data keeps it alive.

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