Facebook considered the idea of breaking with precedent and starting to sell user data directly to advertisers, the Wall Street Journal reports, citing internal emails from the social media giant. The communication in question mostly dates from a period between 2012 to 2014 and was submitted as part of court filings pertaining to a 2015 lawsuit initiated against Facebook by Six4Three LLC, an app developer that's presently facing scrutiny from lawmakers in the United Kingdom.
The emails in question confirm Facebook pondered the notion of charging advertisers for direct access to user data, hence extending its business practices and crossing a line it repeatedly said it never did – separating data from its advertising services, which would allow marketers to use it in any way they see fit. Additionally, the same abridged versions of internal communications reveal a number of Facebook employees considered using increased data access as leverage to convince advertisers to spend more money on their advertising platform. A Facebook representative confirmed the discussions in question took place but stressed how the company ultimately decided to drop the idea and isn't planning to revise it moving forward.
Background: Six4Three sued Facebook three years back because it believed its data access policies break antitrust rules by favoring certain companies over others. The Facebook emails obtained by its lawyers were sealed on the defendant's request by a California judge shortly following their procurement as the social media giant argued they contain sensitive information on its strategic reviews of developer partners and could consequently hurt their relations with the thereof. The application programming interface for harvesting user data that's at the center of Six4Three's lawsuit is the same one that was abused by numerous developers in the past, including Cambridge Analytica whose information-mining practices led to one of Facebook's largest scandals to date earlier this year. UK MP Damian Collins who's in charge of the Cambridge Analytica investigation compelled the seizure of the documents and promised to publicize them earlier this month. He obtained the filings after threatening Six4Three Managing Director Ted Kramer with imprisonment based on contempt-of-parliament charges.
The Menlo Park, California-based firm has been considering more aggressive monetization techniques shortly following its turbulent 2012 IPO when investors and analysts were growing skeptical of its prospects and it needed to identify new revenue opportunities. Earlier this year, Facebook co-founder and Chief Executive Officer Marck Zuckerberg testified in front of Congress in regards to the Cambridge Analytica scandal and explicitly stated Facebook doesn't sell user data but instead charges for targeted advertising based on that information. He described the practice as a good balance of monetization and privacy-friendly policies to a mixed response from lawmakers. The 34-year-old reiterated the same sentimed during a later hearing with members of the European Parliament.
Impact: While Facebook has been committing great energy to describing its business practices as privacy-oriented, the new report illustrates that the company has been willing to discuss much more controversial monetization methods in the past. Regardless, the amount of regulatory scrutiny Facebook is now facing in its home country and abroad will likely keep its business practices in check for the time being.