Facebook bans 'tens of thousands' of apps following Cambridge Analytica files, but some battle back

20 September 2019 00:00 by Mike Swift

Facebook disclosed today that its investigation into the data practices of apps on its platform resulted in the banning of more than 20,000 apps, even as some app developers and congressional investigators question whether Facebook violated antitrust and other laws by altering its platform policies.

In a blog post, Facebook executive Ime Archibong said the company examined millions of apps in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica privacy scandal, and banned “tens of thousands” for “reasons including inappropriately sharing data obtained from us, making data publicly available without protecting people’s identity or something else that was in clear violation of our policies.”

About 10,000 apps on the Facebook platform may "have misappropriated and/or misused consumers’ personal data from the Facebook Platform," according to a newly unsealed court document filed by the Massachusetts attorney general.

But at the same time, Facebook was hit by a lawsuit filed in federal court in San Francisco by online marketing strategy company Stackla that accuses the social media giant of violating California’s Unfair Competition Law and other violations.

“In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal and fueled by state and federal law enforcement antitrust investigations, a reinvigorated Federal Trade Commission investigation, and Congressional inquiries, Facebook and Instagram recently have begun purging their platforms of companies, at least as to Stackla, without any rhyme or reason and in violation of their good-faith partnerships and agreements,” Stackla said in the suit, which was filed Thursday.

Facebook is engaging in a “relentless scorched-earth approach" in hopes of obtaining "belated reputation protection” against apps to fix the reputational damage it suffered because of Cambridge Analytica, Stackla said.

Stackla didn't make a specific antitrust allegation against Facebook, but it is asking a federal judge to rule that the marketing startup hasn't violated the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and the California Comprehensive Computer Data Access and Fraud Act, and therefore shouldn’t have been banned from the Facebook and Instagram platforms.

Stackla's says its platform enables its corporate customers to query social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and others to reveal the "most compelling public content" that is being shared on social media about the brands of Stackla’s customers.

A Facebook spokesperson defended its decision to ban Stackla, saying in a statement that: “Scraping violates our polices, and we have taken action against several companies engaged in this behavior, including Stackla. We’re continuing to develop more proactive data scraping detection methods.”

While Facebook didn't disclose the exact number of apps it has banned, according to court documents unsealed today in a lawsuit filed by the Massachusetts’ attorney general, the social media giant has suspended about 69,000 apps, most of which did not cooperate with Facebook's investigation into misuse of data.

Adding to the heat on Facebook, congressional antitrust investigators are asking Facebook to show that it didn’t improperly ban Stackla and other apps in order to favor its own proprietary apps.

In a letter to Facebook last week, Representative David Cicilline of Rhode Island, chairman of the antitrust subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee, asked Facebook to disclose which of its in-house apps compete with Stackla and three other apps, Phhhoto, MessageMe and Voxer.

After asking Facebook to describe “the timing and exact circumstances” that led Facebook to cut off Stackla and the other apps, Cicilline’s letter asked: “Has Facebook ever cut off access to Facebook’s platform for any app or service because that app or service did not purchase sufficient ads on Facebook?” and “Has Facebook ever conditioned access to Facebook APIs (application programming interfaces) on the purchase of ads (desktop or mobile) on Facebook?”

Seeking to secure its legal authority to ban misbehaving apps, Facebook has sued multiple app developers, including South Korean developer Rankwave. Facebook’s lawyers told a federal judge at a hearing yesterday in Oakland, California, that Rankwave violated Facebook's terms of service by misusing user data gathered from Facebook for its own advertising and marketing services.

Rankwave argued at the hearing that US District Judge Jon Tigar should dismiss Facebook's suit, because the US court doesn't have jurisdiction over a South Korean company that lacks any meaningful connection to California.

Rankwave is a small company with fewer than a dozen employees, and it only offers products and services in Korean, Rankwave attorney John Neukom told Tigar. Tigar did not indicate how he would rule at the hearing.

Facebook’s blog post today indicated that its internal investigation of apps has greatly expanded since May 2018, when it said it had banned 200 apps after investigating “thousands.” But Facebook noted that its proposed $5 billion settlement with the FTC requires it to take tighter oversight over apps on its platforms.

At the same time, Facebook said a relatively small number of developers — about 400 — were associated with the “tens of thousands” of apps that were banned.

And it suggested that, despite the scrutiny from Congressional investigators and judicial opposition from developers like Stackla and Rankwave, Facebook will ban more apps in the future to protect user privacy.

Facebook’s internal investigation into apps is “far from finished,” Archibong said in today’s post. “As each month goes by, we have incorporated what we learned and reexamined the ways developers can build using our platforms. We’ve also improved the ways we investigate and enforce against potential policy violations that we find.”

A lawyer for Stackla, Jeffrey Tsai, did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the suit today. But Facebook said in the blog post that even apps that ask to collect too much data about Facebook users may be banished unless they can justify that they provide a valuable service for users.

“We will not allow apps on Facebook that request a disproportionate amount of information from users relative to the value they provide,” Archibong said.

Meanwhile, privacy groups called on the FTC to investigate the apps banned by Facebook for privacy abuses.

"The FTC should quickly act against many of these app developers, since they share the blame with Facebook, and some could still be holding on to consumer data or continuing to sell it," said Future of Privacy Forum CEO Jules Polonetsky.

- With reporting by Amy Miller in San Francisco.

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