Facebook has dealt with a lot of headaches this year, perhaps none more bizarre than its current dilemma: Sealed documents are leaking from an old lawsuit filed against Facebook by a developer who built an app to help people find Facebook photos of women in bikinis.
The lawsuit, filed by a company called Six4Three with a now-defunct app called Pikinis, was originally filed in 2015. It has been front and center this week as some previously redacted documents from that lawsuit are starting to become public.
Six4Three’s lawsuit came about because the company was upset that Facebook changed its Graph API, which previously let developers see Facebook data from users who signed up for their app, but also data from all of that user’s friends. This was the same API at the center of Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal, and Facebook stopped giving developers access to users’ friend data in 2015.
Pikinis was using that API access to search through Facebook for bikini pics.
So Six4Three sued Facebook, and no one paid much attention. Until earlier this year. That’s when the Guardian mentioned Six4Three’s lawsuit in a story about Facebook conducting “mass surveillance” on users through its API, and that there were “extensive confidential emails and messages between Facebook senior executives” sealed as part of the lawsuit.
The story took center stage this week when the U.K.’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, which is investigating Facebook on issues related to spreading disinformation, acquired those documents from Six4Three founder Ted Kramer, who was ordered to hand them over Monday while visiting the U.K. (To make matters even more intriguing, Kramer then suggested that a reporter involved in the original Cambridge Analytica story may have tipped off British officials to where he was staying.)
Damian Collins, the committee’s chair, threatened earlier this week to publish the documents.
The obvious question now is, what is in the documents and how damaging might they be to Facebook?
The company has spent much of this year in damage-control mode, and a large part of those efforts have been to convince people that the company truly values their privacy. Any internal emails that show Facebook, especially its top executives, dismissing this notion would be another blow to the company’s reputation.
It seems possible that these documents could also cause legal problems for Facebook if anything in them contradicts what its executives, including CEO Mark Zuckerberg, have shared with lawmakers as part of public testimony.
The Wall Street Journal reported late Wednesday that some of the documents show that Facebook employees discussed charging partners to access Facebook’s APIs — basically selling access to Facebook user data. This is something Facebook has said repeatedly it doesn’t do.
Reporters at Wired and Ars Technica also discovered how to decipher some redacted portions of the documents, which confirm what the Wall Street Journal reported. Facebook isn’t disputing the discussions took place, but says the email conversations aren’t the full picture.
“As we’ve said many times, the documents Six4Three gathered for this 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 Thursday. “To be clear, Facebook has never sold anyone’s data. Our APIs have always been free of charge and we have never required developers to pay for using them, either directly or by buying advertising.”
So what is the full picture? We may never know, though it seems we’ll know a lot more soon, now that these documents are in the hands of U.K. politicians.
The next phase of this bizarre saga will take place Friday, when all parties involved in the lawsuit have been asked to appear before the judge in San Mateo, Calif., near Facebook’s headquarters, to discuss the sealed documents.