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Internal Facebook documents show how the company makes deals for data

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

The UK Parliament today released a 250-page cache of previously sealed Facebook documents, revealing internal deliberations at the highest levels of the company, as executives including Mark Zuckerberg made crucial decisions on how to handle users’ data.

Facebook has long said that it does not sell access to its users’ data, and nothing in the documents directly contradicts that claim. But the documents, released by British lawmaker Damian Collins, give a glimpse into how a company of Facebook’s scope makes decisions about deals surrounding data access, including when it decides to work with other companies — and when it decides to take action against them.

In emails released as part of the cache, Facebook executives are shown dealing with other major tech companies on “whitelisting” for its platform. According to Collins, the agreements allowed the companies access to user data after new restrictions were put in place to end most companies’ access. Companies offered access included Netflix and Airbnb, according to the emails.

“Facebook have clearly entered into whitelisting agreements with certain companies, which meant that after the platform changes in 2014/15 they maintained full access to friends data,” Collins writes in a note. “It is not clear that there was any user consent for this, nor how Facebook decided which companies should be whitelisted or not.”

The documents, however, also demonstrate a willingness by Facebook to end access for companies that it believes don’t represent its own interests. In one 2013 email chain, Mark Zuckerberg can be seen personally approving a shutdown of friends data access for Twitter-owned video app Vine. Yesterday, Facebook announced that it would change its rules to allow developers to build more competing services on its platform.

Facebook has faced intense scrutiny in the UK, as in the United States, over its use of data, and questions intensified after the Cambridge Analytica scandal earlier this year. While it’s difficult to derive the full context of the conversations from the limited email release, the documents include internal conversations over years about how much access to offer Facebook’s third-party developers.

In one 2012 email, Zuckerberg pondered whether to change the company’s pricing structure for developers, noting that he was “getting more on board with locking down some parts of platform,” but also “generally sceptical [sic] that there is as much data leak strategic risk as you think.”

The internal documents were produced as part of a court case against Facebook in the United States, but they were held under seal by the court before being released in the UK. The suit was filed against Facebook a company called Six4Three, the makers of a now-defunct app that let users search for images of bikinis on Facebook’s platform. The company alleged anti-competitive practices against Facebook.

“As we’ve said many times, the documents Six4Three gathered for their baseless case are only part of the story and are presented in a way that is very misleading without additional context,” a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement. “We stand by the platform changes we made in 2015 to stop a person from sharing their friends’ data with developers. Like any business, we had many of internal conversations about the various ways we could build a sustainable business model for our platform. But the facts are clear: we’ve never sold people’s data.”