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Mark Zuckerberg leveraged user data to fight rivals and help friends, internal docs show

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By Olivia Solon and Cyrus Farivar

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg oversaw plans to consolidate the social network’s power and control competitors by treating its users’ data as a bargaining chip, while publicly proclaiming to be protecting that data, according to about 4,000 pages of leaked company documents largely spanning 2011 to 2015 and obtained by NBC News.

The documents, which include emails, webchats, presentations, spreadsheets and meeting summaries, show how Zuckerberg, along with his board and management team, found ways to tap Facebook’s trove of user data — including information about friends, relationships and photos — as leverage over companies it partnered with.

In some cases, Facebook would reward favored companies by giving them access to the data of its users. In other cases, it would deny user-data access to rival companies or apps.

For more on this story, watch NBC’s “Today” show at 7 a.m. ET.

For example, Facebook gave Amazon extended access to user data because it was spending money on Facebook advertising and partnering with the social network on the launch of its Fire smartphone. In another case, Facebook discussed cutting off access to user data for a messaging app that had grown too popular and was viewed as a competitor, according to the documents.

All the while, Facebook was formulating a strategy to publicly frame these moves as a way of protecting user privacy.

Private communication between users is “increasingly important,” Zuckerberg said in a 2014 New York Times interview. “Anything we can do that makes people feel more comfortable is really good.”

But the documents show that behind the scenes, in contrast with Facebook’s public statements, the company came up with several ways to require third-party applications to compensate Facebook for access to its users’ data, including direct payment, advertising spending and data-sharing arrangements. While it’s not unusual for businesses that are working together to share information about their customers, Facebook has access to sensitive data that many other companies don’t possess.

Facebook ultimately decided not to sell the data directly but rather to dole it out to app developers who were considered personal “friends” of Zuckerberg or who spent money on Facebook and shared their own valuable data, the documents show.

Facebook denied that it gave preferential treatment to developers or partners because of their ad spending or relationship with executives. The company has not been accused of breaking the law.

A man poses for photos in front of the Facebook sign on the company’s campus in Menlo Park, California, in 2014.Jeff Chiu / AP file

About 400 of the 4,000 pages of documents have previously been reported by other media outlets, and also by a member of the British Parliament who has been investigating Facebook’s data privacy practices in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. However, this cache represents the clearest and most comprehensive picture of Facebook’s activities during a critical period as the company struggled to adapt to the rise of smartphones following its rocky debut as a public company.

The thousands of newly shared documents were anonymously leaked to the British investigative journalist Duncan Campbell, who shared them with a handful of media organizations: NBC News, Computer Weekly and Süddeutsche Zeitung. Campbell, a founding member of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, is a computer forensics expert who has worked on international investigations including on offshore banking and big tobacco. The documents appear to be the same ones obtained by Parliament in late 2018 as part of an investigation into Facebook. Facebook did not question the authenticity of the documents NBC News obtained.

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