After NBC News on Wednesday published a trove of leaked documents that show how Facebook “treated user data as a bargaining chip with external app developers,” White House hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders declared that it is time “to break Facebook up.”
Facebook has incredible power over the economy and our political life. It harvests the data of 228 million Americans and, over and over, uses this sensitive information in dangerous ways. What we need is vigorous antitrust action and to break Facebook up. https://t.co/Wawjlff1o6
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) November 6, 2019
When British investigative journalist Duncan Campbell first shared the trove of documents with a handful of media outlets including NBC News in April, journalists Olivia Solon and Cyrus Farivar reported that “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.”
With the publication Wednesday of nearly 7,000 pages of records—which include internal Facebook emails, web chats, notes, presentations, and spreadsheets—journalists and the public can now have a closer look at exactly how the company was using the vast amount of data it collects when it came to bargaining with third parties.
Technically still under protective order in a California state civil lawsuit that the startup app developer Six4Three filed against Facebook in 2015, the leaked documents from the case include 3,799 pages of sealed exhibits, 2,737 pages of exhibits, 415 pages of related notes and summaries, and a 20-page memorandum (pdfs). More than 1,000 pages are labeled “highly confidential.”
According to Solon and Farivar of NBC:
Taken together, they show how Zuckerberg, along with his board and management team, found ways to tap Facebook users’ data—including information about friends, relationships, and photos—as leverage over the companies it partnered with. In some cases, Facebook would reward partners by giving them preferential access to certain types of user data while denying the same access to rival companies.
For example, Facebook gave Amazon special access to user data because it was spending money on Facebook advertising. In another case the messaging app MessageMe was cut off from access to data because it had grown too popular and could compete with Facebook.
All the while, Facebook planned to publicly frame these moves as a way to protect user privacy, the documents show.
Open Markets Institute fellow Matt Stoller tweeted in response to NBC‘s report Wednesday: “As I have been saying the privacy frame is bullshit. Facebook is all about criminal behavior to monopolize ad money.”
The document dump comes as Facebook and Zuckerberg are facing widespread criticism over the company’s political advertising policy, which allows candidates for elected office to lie in the ads they pay to circulate on the platform. It also comes as 47 state attorneys general, led by Letitia James of New York, are investigating the social media giant for antitrust violations.
The Week‘s national correspondent Ryan Cooper, who also responded to NBC‘s report on Twitter, wrote that “there are some practical (but not insurmountable) problems with putting antitrust regulations on say, Amazon. [But] Facebook you could just shut it down and the world would be a far better place.”
The call from Sanders (I-Vt.) Wednesday to break up Facebook follows similar but less definitive statements from the senator.
One of Sanders’ rivals in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary race, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), released her plan to “Break Up Big Tech” in March. Zuckerberg is among the opponents of Warren’s proposal, which also targets other major technology companies like Amazon and Google.