Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook it seemed less true at today’s House Judiciary hearing, regarding last year’s major controversy over Onavo, in which his company paid teenagers to use a VPN app that reported detailed data on the their internet use. Although he may not have lied at all about it, his answers were evasive and misleading enough to justify a quick clarification shortly afterwards.
The Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) was asking Zuckerberg to confirm series events last year first reported by TechCrunch: A VPN app called Onavo, owned by Facebook, has been fired from Apple’s App Store for the collection and reporting of usage data while planning to provide a protective service.
Soon after, Facebook quietly started paying people ̵1; 18% of them teenagers – to install the “Facebook Research” app, which did the same thing as Onavo under a different name. TechCrunch reported this and Apple issued a ban before the end of that day; Facebook claimed to have voluntarily removed it, but this proved to be untrue.
Rep. Johnson asked Zuckerberg along these lines, and the latter repeatedly expressed his concern about his unfamiliarity with these issues.
Johnson: When it became public that Facebook was using Onavo to conduct digital surveillance, your company was fired from the Apple App Store, right?
Zuckerberg: Congressman, I’m not sure I’d like to characterize it this way.
Johnson: I mean, Onavo didn’t come out of the app store, right?
Zuckerberg: Congressman, we removed the app after Apple changed their policies on VPN apps.
Johnson: And it was because of the use of surveillance tools.
Zuckerberg: Congressman, I’m not sure that the policy was formulated this way or that it is exactly the right characterization of this … [The policies are explained below.]
Johnson: Allow me to ask you this question, after Onavo started from the app store, I switched to another monitoring tool, like Facebook Research App, correct?
Zuckerberg: Congressman, in general, yes, we do a wide variety …
Johnson: Isn’t it true, Mr. Zuckerberg, that Facebook paid teenagers to sell their privacy by installing Facebook Research App?
Zuckerberg: Congressman, I’m not familiar with this, but I think it’s a general practice that companies use to, uh, have different surveys and understand data from how people are using different products and what their preferences are.
Johnson: The Facebook Research app came out of the App Store as well, right?
Zuckerberg: Congressman, I’m not familiar with that.
Needless to say, the idea that Zuckerberg was unfamiliar with the events that made the news, toppled Facebook’s internal apps for days, and delivered an angry letter to him from a senator is absurd. (After all, Facebook responded.)
Perhaps intuiting that this particular claim of ignorance was a bridge too far away (and perhaps in response to some frantic off-screen action in the barnlike virtual testimony of Chief Executive HQ), Zuckerberg took the opportunity to backpedal a few minutes later:
In response to a question from Congressman Johnson, I previously said I wasn’t familiar with the Facebook search app when I wasn’t familiar with that name for it. I just want to be clear that I remember we used an app for research and have since stopped it.
Needless to say, although Zuckerberg may have been plausible he was unsure about the name, it is not believed that he was unfamiliar with the events of that time, as both were highly publicized and very expensive for Facebook. . Of course he too would have been renewed on them in preparation for this testimony.
That Zuckerberg doesn’t know the exact wording of Apple’s rules is possible, even likely, but it was no secret that the rules were basically changed in response to reports of Facebook’s Onavo shenanigans. Here’s what Apple was saying at the time:
We work hard to protect user privacy and data security in the apple ecosystem. With the latest update of our guidelines, we have made it explicit that apps should not collect information about what other apps are installed on a user’s device for analytical or advertising / marketing purposes and should make it clear what data the user will be collected and how it will be used.
Later, when TechCrunch revealed that Facebook was using enterprise deployment tools to essentially put spyware on teen phones, Apple said this:
Designed our Enterprise Developer Program only for internal distribution of apps within an organization. Facebook has been using their partnership to distribute a data collection app to consumers, which is a clear violation of their agreement with Apple. Any developer who uses their enterprise certificates to distribute the app to consumers will have the certificates revoked, which is what we did in this case to protect our users and their data.
So Facebook was the reason, implicitly first, then later explicitly, for these App Store lockdowns. Rep. Johnson put the whole thing clearly at the end of his questions.
Johnson: You tried one thing and then you got caught, you made some apology, then you did it again. [long pause]… isn’t it?
Zuckerberg: Congressman, I do not respectfully agree with that characterization.
You can watch the full hearing here: