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Spotify and Netflix get dragged in to Facebook’s privacy mess


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Facebook’s difficult 2018 isn’t over yet: and the latest investigation into privacy issues at the social network has dragged Spotify and Netflix in to the company’s mess.

“For years, Facebook gave some of the world’s largest technology companies more intrusive access to users’ personal data than it has disclosed, effectively exempting those business partners from its usual privacy rules,” claimed the New York Times in its report, based on internal documents obtained by the newspaper.

Amazon, Yahoo and Microsoft are among the other tech companies cited in the piece. In Spotify and Netflix’s case, these companies were able “to read, write and delete users’ private messages, and to see all participants on a thread — privileges that appeared to go beyond what the companies needed to integrate Facebook into their systems”. In the case of Spotify, that was data from more than 70 million monthly users.

One important point: this remains Facebook’s mess rather than that of the streaming firms. “Spokespeople for Spotify and Netflix said those companies were unaware of the broad powers Facebook had granted them,” reported the NYT. There is no evidence presented in the article to suggest that either company misused those privileges. That said, Spotify execs surely won’t be happy about the potential for its listeners to misinterpret coverage of all this as ‘Spotify read my private Facebook messages’.

Facebook has published its own response to the reports, with the somewhat-testy-sounding ‘Let’s Clear Up a Few Things About Facebook’s Partners’ headline. “To be clear: none of these partnerships or features gave companies access to information without people’s permission, nor did they violate our 2012 settlement with the FTC,” wrote Facebook’s Konstantinos Papamiltiadis.

Spotify is cited as an example of legitimate uses for these privileges: “Messaging integrations that allowed people to recommend things like songs from Spotify to friends… After signing in to your Facebook account in Spotify’s desktop app, you could then send and receive messages without ever leaving the app. Our API provided partners with access to the person’s messages in order to power this type of feature.”

Spotify is unlikely to suffer significant reputational damage from the NYT report, although an unambiguous ‘we didn’t read your private Facebook messages!’ statement from the company may be handy in the days ahead, to reassure any users spooked by headlines.

Netflix, for example, has put out this statement: “Over the years we have tried various ways to make Netflix more social. One example of this was a feature we launched in 2014 that enabled members to recommend TV shows and movies to their Facebook friends via Messenger or Netflix. It was never that popular so we shut the feature down in 2015. At no time did we access people’s private messages on Facebook or ask for the ability to do so.”

The bigger picture here is (hopefully) that 2018’s series of privacy controversies will lead to more people being more cautious about what permissions they give digital services for accessing and sharing data. This is hardly unknown territory for Spotify: back in 2015 the company apologised after criticism of a poorly-explained new privacy policy for its own service. In 2019, clear explanations of how new features work and why they need access to certain data will be more essential than ever, for all digital companies – music-streaming services included.

Stuart Dredge

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