Facebook for years gave major tech companies, including Yahoo and Netflix, greater access to people’s data than it disclosed, a New York Times investigation found. The partnerships helped Facebook draw new users, ramp up its advertising revenue and embed itself on sites across the web.
This is how some of the key deals worked.
In 2011, when Yahoo and Facebook announced their partnership, social networking features were seen as crucial to attracting users to existing websites. In a news release that September, Yahoo announced that it was “putting people’s friends front and center to usher in an innovative way of connecting around content socially.”
Yahoo said people who opted in to its new features would see their Facebook friends and the articles those friends had read, in a “facebar” at the top of the Yahoo News site.
As with many social features from that time, the integration did not work as well as the companies had hoped, and it soon ended. Yet Yahoo maintained special data access for more than 80,000 accounts, according to internal Facebook documents reviewed by The Times. As recently as this summer, Yahoo was able to view a stream of posts from these people’s friends, and it is unclear what the company did with that information. A Yahoo spokesman said the company did not use the information for advertising.
Netflix and Spotify
Netflix and Spotify received access to people’s Facebook messages as part of features that allowed people to suggest movies, TV shows and music to friends. On Netflix, for example, after watching a show, a viewer would be prompted to connect to Facebook and recommend it.
Netflix promoted the arrangement in 2014 as more privacy-sensitive than posting people’s viewing habits on their Facebook pages. Using Facebook Messenger allowed people to “easily, and privately, recommend the shows you love to the people you care about,” Netflix said in a 2014 blog post.
To accomplish such sharing, the Netflix application had to be able to send Facebook messages. But Netflix was given the ability not only to send private messages but also to read, write and delete them, and to see all participants on a thread. A Netflix spokesman said the company was not aware it had been granted such broad powers and had used the access only for messages sent by the recommendation feature.
Netflix deactivated the feature about a year after it was introduced, but documents show that the company still had access to users’ messages in 2017.
Spotify, which continues to offer its own similar recommendation feature, also said it was unaware of the special access.
Facebook, in a quest to bind other corners of the web to its social network, shared data with several major websites in a program called “instant personalization.” These partners, which included Microsoft’s Bing search engine and Rotten Tomatoes, the movie and television review site, got access to users’ names, gender, profile photos and any other information they had made public.
Beginning in 2010, if people visited one of those partner sites while logged in to Facebook, a blue bar on the screen would let them know the site was receiving their Facebook data to personalize what they saw. For example, people might see what movies their friends liked, or get tailored search results based on preferences gleaned from Facebook.
Facebook eventually wound down instant personalization, but it continued to allow some sites, including Bing and Rotten Tomatoes, access to much of the same data they had been getting for the discontinued feature.
‘People You May Know’
The internal documents shed light on a Facebook feature called “People You May Know,” a friend-suggestion tool that has long confused and unsettled users.
Gizmodo and other outlets have reported that the tool has recommended connections between patients of the same psychiatrist, estranged family members and people who had simply been in the same location, prompting suspicions that the company was closely tracking users’ whereabouts, listening to their conversations and more.
In some deals, Facebook shared information with other companies and in turn received people’s contact details — data Facebook used to develop complex friend network models and suggest more connections, the documents show. The partners that fed information to the tool included Amazon, Yahoo and the Chinese company Huawei.
The New York Times
The Times, one of nine media companies named in the documents, developed a social-sharing application called TimesPeople in 2008.
The tool incorporated Facebook friend lists and allowed people to share articles and make recommendations to other readers. The feature was shut down in 2011, but The Times continued to have access to friend lists until 2017. The Times spokeswoman said they were unaware of the continued access and were not receiving any data for the feature from Facebook.
TESLA’S PRICE CUT AND MORE CAR NEWS FROM THIS WEEK
HAPPY NEW YEAR, and welcome back. 2019 is young, and we’ve already got a transportation bombshell on our hands: New York governor Andrew Cuomo announced he wants to cancel a planned subway line shutdown in the country’s largest public transit system. He says a panel of experts found a smarter way to fix tunnels damaged by 2012’s Hurricane Sandy—and according to engineers we spoke to, Cuomo might be right. But what happens now? Will the city stick with its plans, formed over the course of three years, to revamp bike and bus lanes and pedestrian spaces? Transportation advocates hope so.
Meanwhile, we’re still a little stuck on 2018, which was filled with exciting advances for Tesla, scooter-share, and even self-driving cars (sometimes). Read about the happenings, before it all fades away. It’s been a few weeks. Let’s get you caught up.
New TLC commissioner should have economic smarts: Advocates
Professional driver advocates say the city should be looking for a new Taxi & Limousine commissioner with a background in economics and a focus on policy.
“There’s a serious economic crisis in this industry, and [the next chairperson] needs to be interested in policy, not just politics, and care for the workers at the end of the day,” said Bhiaravi Desai, the executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, which represents 20,000 of the city’s professional drivers. “Given the level of crisis that drivers have been under, you need a chairperson who is going to be bold and really willing to put even their own kind of career interests second to the plight of the drivers.”
The head of the city’s Taxi & Limousine Commission, Meera Joshi, will step down from her post in March, the de Blasio administration announced over the weekend.
Joshi, whose policy positions clashed with those of the mayor’s, has headed the department since 2014 and oversaw a tumultuous period for the driving industry, as Uber and Lyft flooded the market and upended long-held practices of the ride-hailing industry.
“Thanks to a skilled and principled TLC staff, a Commission dedicated to doing the right thing and engaged industry members and advocates, through public debate and data, we increased accountability, safety, access, modernized taxi regulation, protected drivers and increased consumer protections. I am deeply grateful to the TLC community that made this possible,” said Commissioner Joshi in a statement.
Joshi oversaw the department as New York became the first major city to temporarily cap the number of e-hail vehicles on the road, and more recently spearheaded the nation’s first minimum wage for e-hail drivers. She also succeeded where other cities failed in acquiring more pickup and drop-off data from e-hail companies.
She also grappled, however, with a tragic series of driver suicides as e-hails multiplied on the streets of the city, decreasing the value of taxi medallions and rattling the economics of the industry.
Desai did praise Joshi for her “heart” as well as her “institutional knowledge” and “vision.”
De Blasio undercut Joshi several times this past year. In July, as Joshi’s agency issued a report that became the foundation for setting the minimum wage for e-hail drivers, de Blasio’s office failed to endorse the idea, with the mayor’s press secretary calling it “very premature.”
De Blasio stepped on Joshi’s toes more recently as the state looked to administer a congestion surcharge on taxi and e-hail trips in a large swath of Manhattan. After Joshi said the policy would be “devastating” for taxi drivers, de Blasio endorsed the proposal as a way to decrease traffic volumes. A judge blocked that policy from taking effect last month after cabdrivers filed suit.
In a statement announcing the news, de Blasio hailed his commissioner, saying she will be leaving an “unparalleled legacy.”
“In this unprecedented period of growth, Meera has brought about equally unprecedented and vital change that will serve as a model for cities throughout the nation and the world,” de Blasio said. “Under her leadership, New Yorkers who use wheelchairs can get service, passengers are assured that every driver and vehicle is safe, our city has detailed records of the one million daily trips, and New York City is the only place where app drivers have pay protection.”
Sony’s Chief Plans to Make Entertainment Assets a Priority
What will happen to Sony Pictures?
That has been a question in Hollywood since Kenichiro Yoshida took over as Sony Corporation’s chief executive in April. Unlike his two predecessors, Mr. Yoshida, a number-cruncher based in Japan and known for jettisoning underperforming businesses, seemed to have little affinity for the company’s also-ran movie and television division, which is best known as the home of Spider-Man and “Seinfeld.”
Surely this would be the moment for Sony to get rid of the midsize studio — especially since Rupert Murdoch had just decided to sell his bigger 20th Century Fox to Disney, having concluded it did not have the scale needed to compete with moviedom insurgents like Netflix, Apple and Amazon.
Surprise. When Mr. Yoshida takes the stage on Monday at the CES trade show in Las Vegas, he plans to use the high-profile platform to showcase Sony movies, television shows and music. He plans to telegraph that not only will his Sony not exit any of these businesses, it will make them a priority as his predecessors have not. In particular, Mr. Yoshida wants to make better use of the company’s online PlayStation Network as a way to bring Sony movies, shows and music directly to consumers. PlayStation Network, introduced in 2006, now has more than 80 million monthly active users.
“I want to convey the message that Sony is a creative entertainment company,” Mr. Yoshida said by phone from Tokyo before leaving for Nevada. That description amounts to a significant shift. Sony has long been seen as a consumer electronics superpower first and a Hollywood entity second.
He added that Sony’s three separately run entertainment businesses — music, gaming and motion pictures — have been told from on high that it is time to collaborate more consistently. In the past, analysts say, PlayStation Network managers have been hesitant to team up with their movie and music counterparts, worrying that the service’s core gamers would balk if they felt that Sony was pushing, say, family films at them.
Mr. Yoshida seemed less concerned. He called PlayStation Network “a very strong entertainment platform for all of Sony — very suitable for video and music content.”
Mr. Yoshida said he was asking for collaboration at a time when all the pertinent divisions have new leaders. Tony Vinciquerra became chief executive of Sony Pictures in June 2017. John Kodera took over gaming slightly more than a year ago. In recent months, Rob Stringer and Jon Platt were named as Sony’s top executives in music recording and publishing. All report to Mr. Yoshida; he said he had no plans to consolidate the entertainment businesses under a single executive.
“Entertainment is in Sony’s DNA,” Mr. Yoshida said. “We’ve now been in the music business for 50 years, the motion picture business for 30 years and the game business for over 25 years.” For its last fiscal year, the three units made up 47 percent of Sony’s operating profit, which totaled $6.7 billion, the highest in the conglomerate’s 72-year history.
Positioning Sony as an entertainment company represents a “directional change” and fits with other public comments Mr. Yoshida has made since he took over nine months ago, said Masaru Sugiyama, a Goldman Sachs analyst. “It has felt as if entertainment is more integrated with the rest of Sony within Yoshida-san’s mind,” Mr. Sugiyama said.
Even so, Sony is in no way leaning away from its portfolio of technology and consumer products.
At CES, as the Las Vegas trade show is known, Sony is expected to showcase image sensors for cars, new audio products, ultra-ultra high-definition televisions and robotics. Thomas E. Rothman, Sony’s movie chief, will take the stage after Mr. Yoshida to talk up the company’s turnaround in film, bringing along Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, producers of the studio’s recent “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” But Mr. Rothman’s remarks will be peppered with references to how Sony cameras have helped the studio — its tech breakthroughs bolstering its creative endeavors.
Sony’s entertainment empire has its share of challenges, of course.
After buying out partners, Sony has outright control of the world’s largest catalog of music publishing assets. But the recording unit had a soft 2018 in the hit department.
Apple has been poaching Sony television and film executives to work on its coming streaming service. And major Sony-made television shows like “Better Call Saul” and “The Blacklist” are aging. Efforts to find replacements have mostly fizzled, in part because the highest-paying TV networks are ordering more shows from in-house suppliers.
As a whole, however, Sony’s entertainment businesses are stronger than they have been in memory — in particular the film division, which suffered a devastating cyberattack in 2014. Mr. Rothman and Mr. Vinciquerra have turned movies into an unexpected engine by cutting costs and focusing more intently on all-audience “tent pole” fantasies like “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” which took in $962 million worldwide in 2017. To dropped jaws in Hollywood, “Venom” generated $856 million in ticket sales late last year.
Sony has a parade of big-budget sequels on the way — “Men in Black: International” arrives in June — and the studio is aggressively mining the rights it holds to Marvel characters in the Spider-Man comics family. To that end, movies based on Morbius, Black Cat and Silver Sable are in the works; the Sinister Six could be Sony’s answer to “The Avengers.” Sony is also considering making animated television shows based on characters introduced in “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” which has collected $276 million at the box office.
Now that Fox has been sold, only Disney and Sony have rights to make Marvel-related film and television content.
And Marvel characters are popular with the PlayStation Network crowd. One reason that Mr. Yoshida is pushing for more collaboration: Marvel’s Spider-Man, a $60 game, set a record for Sony in September by selling 3.3 million copies in its first three days of release.
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