Why Airtel and Saavn got special user data access from Facebook?

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New Delhi | Updated: July 5, 2018 10:36:32 AM

Facebook said that is has discontinued 38 of the 52 partnerships while the seven of the remaining firms are due to reach their agreement closure by July this year and that one of them will have its deal terminated by October this year

Facebook has said it gave some companies special access to users’ data (Source: Reuters)

Facebook’s recent submission to US Congress that notes the company gave special concessions to select companies requesting the access to the users’ data has spawned fresh concerns about the data privacy. Airtel and Saavn are two of those companies that received the favours from Facebook either as the exemption after Facebook revoked their access to users’ data on the platform in 2015 or under the ‘data sharing agreements’ as a part of “integration partnership”. While the social media giant did not specify as to why this special treatment was involved, a new report suggests that all the companies were valuable to Facebook in some way that led them to enjoy certain ‘perks’.

Airtel and Saavn belonged to two separate group of companies that were allowed to access users’ data on special conditions despite a new regulation that had come into effect to the API policy. According to a report by The Wall Street Journal, these “whitelisting agreements” were signed with the companies that had a major share in advertising on Facebook or held some value for some reason.

The popular music streaming platform Saavn was granted access to Facebook users’ data, in line with the consent of the users, to log the personal details and the data on the friends of the user who signed up for the service. Saavn uses a Facebook login plug on its platform where it asks the user to allow access to the most of the personal data, on top of other wide-ranging information on his/her friends. However, following the rejig in privacy policy in 2015, Facebook removed this type of access given to third-parties after much outrage.

Saavn is one of the 61 companies that received a temporary exemption from the data access blockage on user’s friends and their respective data. The exemption, though temporary, bought some extra time for these companies to become compliant with the new tightened platform API policy to safeguard the users’ privacy from any potential breaches by third parties. While Facebook did not clearly mention the reason behind this favour offered to the 61 companies, it has now come to light that after the rollout of new policies in May 2015, Saavn and other companies continued the access to the user’s personal information such as date of birth, gender, home network, photos, and liked pages for nearly six months.

The data collected by these companies during the mentioned period were strictly against the newly formed API policy that required all the app developers to justify the need to access one or more information on a user coming to their platform via Facebook. In case, the “legitimate need for that data” is not produced, Facebook is in a position to squarely deny the request of that app. Facebook said it removed data access requests of more than half the apps that were received under the new policy between April 2014 and April 2018.

The report by The Wall Street Journal points out that these companies signed the agreement with Silicon Valley-based company either had a major contribution to the advertisements on the platform or were valuable to Facebook in some way, which is not clear as of now. We could not separately verify if this was the case but Saavn has refuted the charges that there was no time extension given by Facebook to the company.

On the similar lines, Airtel, which falls into the second set of deals, were permitted by Facebook to gain the data of its users to offer a “Facebook-like experience”. Besides Airtel, the number of companies that received this premium included 51 other companies that signed a pact with Facebook called “integration partnerships”. It can be understood as the services launched by the software companies to allow people to access Facebook services on a wide range of products and devices. This is a broader category for the dated Facebook’s SMS alert service that began in India and elsewhere a few years ago.

Facebook said that is has discontinued 38 of the 52 partnerships while the seven of the remaining firms are due to reach their agreement closure by July this year and that one of them will have its deal terminated by October this year. Apart from Airtel, the list contains the names of other big companies including Apple, Amazon, and BlackBerry among others.

A New York Times report outlines that these data-sharing “whitelisting agreements” with hardware and device manufacturers allowed them to “access the data of users’ friends without their explicit consent and even after declaring that it would no longer share such information with outsiders.” It is unclear what information Airtel was able to access as a result of this partnership.

Airtel has also agreed that such a partnership existed and it had access to some data of Facebook users, however, it has at the same time said that the partnership ended in 2013 and so did that access to data. Airtel has said that the data accessed was used “only for internal purposes.”

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