Facebook’s morale problem is getting worse

Early on Wednesday, the United Kingdom Parliament released a 250-page trove of documents from a US lawsuit against Facebook. The trove has a colorful history, having been obtained in a hotel-room raid on a visiting businessman that may or may not have been coordinated by a crusading anti-Facebook journalist, who has stubbornly refused to comment on the matter. Facebook attempted to block the documents’ release, but British lawmaker Damien Collins argued that they are in the public interest and posted them online.

What did we learn from the document dump? I group the findings into two big buckets. The first concerns data privacy; the second is about competition. Let’s look at them in order.

Data privacy is at the root of the legal case that ushered these documents into the spotlight. Six4Three, a developer of a fairly gross app that sorted through your Facebook friends’ photos to find pictures of them in their swimsuits, sued Facebook after the company cut off access to its API in 2015. (This was the same API, by the way, that Cambridge Analytica used to illicitly obtain personal information about 87 million people.) The API had been created in response to public pressure on Facebook to share more of its data with outside developers, but enough developers behaved badly enough that shutting down the API was widely seen as a good thing.

The discovery process in the Six4Three legal lawsuit generated the 250 pages that journalists spent today reading. Taken together, the documents help capture a time when the company was considering how to manage and monetize access to the data it collects.

As had previously been reported by the Wall Street Journal, some executives did consider selling access to user data, ultimately opting against it. The documents also lay out the degree to which Facebook made special deals with some developers to preserve their access to data after it became more restricted. I can understand why Facebook made these deals — it trusted some companies more than others, often because executives had personal relationships with their counterparts at companies like Lyft. But average users had little say in how access to their data was meted out, and very few of these discussions were public as they were being had.

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