Facebook Inc began cutting off access to user data for app developers from 2012 to squash potential rivals while presenting the move to the general public as a boon for user privacy, according to court documents reviewed by Reuters and NBC.
Some executives at the world’s biggest social network appeared to refer to the strategy of promoting a privacy-focused explanation for the change as the “Switcharoo Plan”, internal emails included in sealed California court filings show.
The emergence of nearly 7,000 pages of company emails and executive documents comes as Facebook faces multiple investigations into possible antitrust violations by regulators around the world.
The emails could supply valuable evidence to investigators, including a panel of US lawmakers that sought company records in September on Facebook’s decisions to bar apps from its social graph, which maps out relations between users.
The documents come from a lawsuit filed in 2015 by Six4Three, the developer of a now-shuttered bikini photo app that lost access to Facebook user data as a result of the changes, which were announced in 2014 and implemented the following year.
Six4Three alleges that Facebook’s data policies were anticompetitive and that the company misrepresented those policies both to developers and the public.
Facebook has described the case as baseless. A company spokeswoman told Reuters the documents were “taken out of context by someone with an agenda against Facebook” and made public “with a total disregard for US law”.
Portions of the material have been released over the course of the past year, but provided an incomplete picture of the period between 2012 and 2014 when policy changes were debated within the company.
The new documents contain exchanges between executives discussing cutting off access to user data for developers seen as potential competitors at a time when the company said publicly that it provided an open and neutral platform.
One executive, writing in 2013, described dividing apps into “three buckets: existing competitors, possible future competitors, developers that we have alignment with on business models” as part of the project to restrict access to user data, dubbed PS12N.
Those in the last category were able to regain access by agreeing to make mobile advertising purchases or provide reciprocal user data to Facebook under “Private Extended API Agreements”, according to the emails.
As thousands of developers lost access to user data, the executives decided to announce the changes publicly. They elected to link what they referred to as the “bad stuff of PS12N” to an unrelated update of the Facebook login system which gave people greater control over their privacy.
The “narrative” for the announcement “will focus on quality and the user experience which will potentially provide a good umbrella to fold in some of the API deprecations”, one executive wrote in an email.
Another invited colleagues in a February 2014 email to review the “Switcharoo Plan”, calling it “a good compromise” that will enable them “to tell a story that makes sense”.
The month prior, the same executive wrote: “My concern is around the perception that we can’t hold our story together.”
When Facebook enacted the changes in 2015, executives told journalists the company had conducted research on user sentiment about Facebook apps and decided on policies that would help build confidence in data privacy, according to a report by the tech publication TechCrunch.
The documents were initially produced by Facebook during the discovery process of Six4Three’s 2015 lawsuit and were sealed by by the California state judge overseeing the case.
They were obtained by the UK parliament under extraordinary circumstances in November 2018. When Six4Three founder Ted Kramer was in London that year he provided them to Damian Collins, the chair of the parliamentary committee that was investigating Facebook, after Collins told Kramer that failure to do so put him in “contempt of parliament”.
Kramer’s access to the documents and whether he should have provided them to Collins while in the UK despite the court order, were the subject of considerable criticism by the California court – and by Facebook.