The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Facebook offers fresh detail about its ties to dozens of outside companies in more than 700 pages of new data turned over to Congress

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg pauses while testifying April 10 before a joint hearing of the commerce and judiciary committees on Capitol Hill in Washington about the use of Facebook data to target American voters in the 2016 election. (Andrew Harnik/AP)
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Facebook shared user information with 52 hardware and software makers, including some based in China, under agreements designed to make its social media platform work more effectively on smartphones and other devices, the company said in information furnished to Congress late Friday night.

The acknowledgment, which came in more than 700 pages of replies to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, is the fullest to date regarding reports that Facebook shared user data with some companies for years after it stopped doing so with most app makers. Some of the partnerships continued into this year, and some continue to this day, the documents say.

The list of these partners includes major American tech brands such as Apple, and Microsoft, along with South Korean tech giant Samsung and China-based companies Huawei and Alibaba. Not all of the companies are device makers; some make operating systems or other software. (Jeffrey P. Bezos, the co-founder and chief executive of Amazon, owns The Washington Post.)

“We engaged companies to build integrations for a variety of devices, operating systems and other products where we and our partners wanted to offer people a way to receive Facebook or Facebook experiences,” the company said in the documents. “These integrations were built by our partners, for our users, but approved by Facebook.”

Facebook has ended 38 of the 52 partnerships and plans to soon end seven more, the company said.

The social network has been sharply criticized on Capitol Hill over reports that it shared detailed information on its users with a wide range of outside companies. Lawmakers have taken special issue with Facebook’s relationships with Chinese device makers, particularly Huawei, which Democrats and Republicans have alleged is too closely intertwined with the country’s government, posing even greater privacy and security risks to users.

The 747-page disclosure from Facebook came in response to roughly 1,200 questions posted by members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which grilled Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg at a hearing in April. The replies were due by Friday, and Facebook submitted them close to midnight.

The wide-ranging queries grew out of Facebook’s entanglement with Cambridge Analytica, a political consultancy hired by the Trump campaign that previously had gained access to information on 87 million Facebook users, including 71 million Americans, without their knowledge in 2014. Cambridge Analytica accessed this data through a Facebook app, a quiz called “thisisyourdigitallife,” which collected information about its immediate users as well as their friends on the site.

While Facebook required third-party developers to cease collecting information this way by 2015, the social giant acknowledged Friday that 61 apps — including dating services such as Hinge and music-streaming giant Spotify — received special extensions of up to six months to comply with the new rules. Facebook also said at least five other developers “theoretically could have accessed limited friends' data” as part of a beta test, but the company did not further elaborate on the matter.

Reports about the data-sharing arrangements with device makers caused renewed controversy because the practice continued years after Facebook began restricting access to the user information available to app makers — a move Facebook portrayed as a sign that it had grown more careful in guarding user privacy.

Before the data sharing was discontinued, Apple, for example, allowed Facebook users to download profile photos for their friends and use them in their iPhone contact lists. Some BlackBerry devices appeared to access several categories of data, including messages. Facebook has defended the practices as helpful to making the social media platform perform properly on the hundreds of individual mobile devices sold to customers worldwide.

The release Saturday morning was the second batch of questions that Facebook has submitted to Congress since Zuckerberg’s appearance before Congress. The first, of roughly 500 pages, was furnished earlier this month to the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Senate Commerce Committee.

Yet Facebook once again left many lawmakers' questions unanswered. It didn’t say why Facebook didn’t audit apps such as the one at the heart of the Cambridge Analytica controversy years before it became the subject of international scrutiny, for example, or provide the names of company employees who were responsible for the lack of oversight. Facebook couldn’t specify how many users actually read or accessed its terms-of-use policies in response to a question from Rep. Michael C. Burgess (R-Tex.). It declined to answer if the company has considered ever charging users as an alternative to serving them targeted ads. And it didn’t address the inquiries of two lawmakers who wanted to know the number of demands Facebook has received from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, which is under fire for its handling of children and parents who cross the U.S. border.

Facebook also dodged hundreds of questions that the site’s own users had submitted to Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-Calif.), who then forwarded them to Facebook. Many users sought to understand more about Facebook’s privacy and security practices as well as its handling of controversial content, including posts that sympathize with the alt-right. In many cases, though, Facebook repeated general answers to those queries.

Cambridge Analytica used the data it accessed from Facebook to help Republican candidates target voters with political messages based on psychological evaluations of their personalities, including personal preferences and other information shared on social media.

News reports revealing that Facebook data had been used in this way triggered an investigation by the Federal Trade Commission, which is probing whether Facebook violated a 2011 consent decree on its privacy practices, and also generated sharp bipartisan complaints about data management by the company. Reports about the sharing of data with device makers sharpened that scrutiny.

Under the 2011 decree with the FTC, Facebook is required to obtain permission before sharing a user’s private information with a “third party” in a way that exceeds that user’s existing privacy settings. Facebook officials said that device makers such as Samsung or BlackBerry were suppliers, not “third parties.” On Friday, the social media giant again told Congress it had not run afoul of the settlement.