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Facebook might not sell user data, but internal documents suggest it was certainly considered

Facebook might not sell user data, but internal documents suggest it was certainly considered


The documents are due to be made public next week

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Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Internal Facebook documents seized by British lawmakers suggest that the social media giant once considered selling access to user data, according to extracts obtained by the Wall Street Journal. Back in April, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told congress unequivocally that, “We do not sell data.” But these documents suggest that it was something that the company internally considered doing between 2012 and 2014, while the company struggled to generate revenue after its IPO.

In one case, an employee suggested shutting down data access unless companies spent “$250k a year to maintain access.” In another email, a Facebook employee talked about having a “strategic” talk with Amazon to avoid a “disappointing conversation” about it getting less data in the future. Concerns raised by the Royal Bank of Canada about restricted data access prompted a Facebook employee to ask in an email about how much the bank had agreed to spend on advertising. It’s unclear whether these emails were sent by one or multiple staff members.

“I can’t be clearer on this topic: We don’t sell data”

At the time of the emails, it was possible for third-party developers to not only see the data of users that interacted with their app, but also their friends. Facebook recognized that it was giving away valuable data to developers without profiting from it.

It was this functionality that allowed the This Is Your Digital Life app (which was responsible for originally harvesting Cambridge Analytica’s data) to eventually gain access to 87 million accounts worth of users data, despite only thousands of users originally consenting to give its developer access to their information. Facebook closed this loophole in 2015, but the emails seen by the WSJ suggest that the company considered offering continued access to data in return for financial compensation.

“We were trying to figure out how to build a sustainable business,” a Facebook spokeswoman told The Wall Street Journal. “We had a lot of internal conversations about how we could do this.”

There’s no evidence that Facebook ever followed through on any of these discussions, nor do the emails suggest that Zuckerberg lied to congress. However, they do show that in the wake of Facebook going public in 2012 the company was very concerned about its revenue streams, and that the idea of selling user data was at least on the table for consideration. More answers are expected to come next week when the documents are due to be made public.