Internal Facebook documents released by a U.K. parliamentary committee offer the clearest evidence yet the social network has used its enormous trove of user data as a competitive weapon, often in ways that keep its users in the dark.
Parliament’s media committee accused Facebook on Wednesday of cutting special deals with some app developers to give them more access to data, while icing out others it viewed as potential rivals.
In other documents, company executives discussed how they were keeping the company’s collection and exploitation of user data from its users. That included quietly collecting the call records and text messages of users of phones that run on Google’s Android operating system without asking their permission.
The U.K. committee released more than 200 pages of documents on the tech giant’s internal discussions about the value of users’ personal information.
While they mostly cover the period between 2012 and 2015 —the first three years after Facebook went public — they offer a rare glimpse into the company’s inner workings and the extent to which it used people’s data to make money while publicly vowing to protect their privacy.
The company’s critics said the revelations reinforced their concerns.
“These kinds of schemes are exactly why companies must be required to disclose exactly how they are collecting and sharing our data, with stiff penalties for companies that lie about it,” Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said in a statement.
Facebook called the documents misleading.
“Like any business, we had many internal conversations about the various ways we could build a sustainable business model for our platform,” the company said in a statement. “But the facts are clear: We’ve never sold people’s data.”
In a Facebook post, CEO Mark Zuckerberg sought to put the documents in context.
“We blocked a lot of sketchy apps. We also didn’t allow developers to use our platform to replicate our functionality or grow their services virally in a way that creates little value for people on Facebook,” he said.
The U.K. committee seized the documents from app developer Six4Three, maker of a now-defunct bikini-picture search app. Six4Three acquired the files as part of a U.S. lawsuit that accuses Facebook of anti-competitive business practices. The documents remain under court seal in the U.S.
In a summary of key issues pertaining to the documents, the committee said Facebook made exceptions for companies that gave them continued access to users’ “friends” even after the tech giant announced changes in 2015 to end the practice.
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,” said committee chair Damian Collins.
The cache includes emails from Zuckerberg and other executives scheming to leverage user data to favor companies not considered to be threats and to identify potential acquisitions.
“The idea of linking access to friends’ data to the financial value of the developers’ relationship with Facebook is a recurring feature of the documents,” Collins said.
The committee’s summary said Facebook collected data about the mobile apps its users favored to help it decide which companies to acquire. It said Facebook knew that an update to its Android mobile app phone system — which allowed the Facebook app to gather user call logs and text messages — would be controversial.
The Android data collection practice was unearthed in April during the Cambridge Analytica scandal roiled Facebook. The data mining firm, employed by the 2016 Trump campaign, exploited lax Facebook data-sharing policies to obtain data on millions of users without their consent.
In a January 2013 email exchange, Zuckerberg signed off on cutting access to Twitter’s Vine video-producing app, which had allowed users to find their friends on Vine by pulling in data from Facebook.
“Unless anyone raises objections,” Facebook Vice President Justin Osofsky wrote, the company would cut Vine’s access to users’ friend networks. “We’re prepared reactive PR.”
“Yup, go for it,” Zuckerberg replied.