In recent weeks, a dust-up between the maker of a forgotten Facebook bikini app and the social media giant has been boosted by a high-profile fight involving the British Parliament.
On Friday, both sides in the Six4Three v.
Facebook lawsuit, which alleges breach of contract, appeared before a San Mateo County judge for the second time in a week in a hearing that dragged on for over three hours.
However, Six4Three’s recent court filings show that its lawyers are also involved in a second lawsuit brought by a different company—one that promoted breast cancer awareness, among other apps—that levies very similar allegations against Facebook.
This new case, Styleform IT v. Facebook, which was filed last month in San Francisco County Superior Court, makes sweeping claims that for years Facebook engaged in “fraudulent and anti-competitive schemes designed and effectuated by Defendant Facebook Inc.’s Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg, with the intention of deliberately misleading tens of thousands of software companies.”
The case alleges breach of contract, concealment, and intentional misrepresentation, among other claims brought under California state law.
Styleform IT appears to be the second case brought under the “Facebook’s App Economy” banner—a comprehensive effort to sue Facebook by app developers who feel duped. This website, which dates back only a few months, does not list the names of any person or company behind it but invites readers to “Tell Zuckerberg we will no longer be his patsy!”
Filings in a related Six4Three case dating back to 2016 strongly suggest that this site was created by Six4Three itself, seemingly as a way to recruit more developers to its cause. Facebook attempted to shut it down at the time, alleging a trademark violation, which appears to not have been successful. It is not clear why Six4Three would want to keep its affiliation to this site a secret if it and its lawyers want to draw fellow disgruntled app developers.
The new plaintiff, Styleform IT, is a seemingly defunct one-person Swedish company, which, according to the lawsuit, made just a few Facebook apps, beginning over a decade ago.
Facebook has denied any wrongdoing.
“This case is as meritless as the Six4Three case,” Sally Aldous, a Facebook spokeswoman, told Ars in a statement.
Straight outta Stockholm
Styleform IT does not appear to have a Web presence of any sort. It was first registered with the Swedish Companies Registration Office back in January 2005 to a man named “Frans Olof Mikael Belmondo Rosén,” who lived in Enskede, a suburb of Stockholm.
The lawsuit states that Styleform’s “principal place of business” is a residence in Enskede, just 2.5 kilometers from the previously registered home address.
There is a somewhat well-known Swedish information security researcher named Frans Rosén, who says he lives in Stockholm, but it is not clear if this is the same person. This Rosén did not respond to Ars’ requests for comment.
The attorneys, Stuart Gross and Benjamin Klein, who are based in San Francisco, along with David Godki and James Kruzer, of Boston, did not respond to Ars’ requests for comment.
The Styleform lawsuit goes through an expansive narrative that largely mirrors the one brought in the Six4Three complaint, in many instances using very similar if not identical language.
Styleform’s lawyers claim that Facebook swindled numerous developers when it pulled the rug out from under them in 2015. That was when Facebook finally yanked access to its more permissive first version (“v1.0”) of its Graph API, the primary means to get data into and out of Facebook.
“Facebook’s Graph API was a revolution in large-scale data provision,” Jonathan Albright, the research director at the Columbia University Tow Center for Digital Journalism, wrote in March 2018.
“It converted people and their likes, connections, locations, updates, networks, histories, and extended social networks into — quite literally — ’objects.’ It made the company’s offerings and the data its users generated more economically viable.“
Or, put another way, despite a user marking updates as “private,” making them unreadable to other Facebook friends, that data continued to be machine-readable.
“The API was not restricted based on the users’ privacy settings—it was deceptive,” Ashkan Soltani, an independent privacy researcher who recently testified about Facebook before the British Parliament, told Ars.
“API developers were treated with the same level of access as Facebook itself. They were given almost superuser access.”
The Styleform lawsuit, like the Six4Three case, claims that Facebook initially said it would give all developers equal access to the Graph API, when in fact it was giving “special access” to high-profile players, including Nissan and the Royal Bank of Canada.
Indeed, new documents that have emerged as a result of the Six4Three case bear that out. They show that Facebook gave extended access to a number of large companies and even pondered charging access to its vast trove of data.
Facebook has said that these revelations are “misleading,” but it has not fully explained why or provided additional context.
Styleform’s civil complaint tells a story of an inflection point in 2012, when Facebook’s stock had dropped precipitously and the company needed to reevaluate its business model.
“In order to save Facebook’s business, Sheryl Sandberg, Dan Rose, Samuel Lessin, and others convinced Zuckerberg to weaponize user data and Graph API in an extortion scheme that had devastating impacts across the entire consumer software industry and caused 35,000 small-to-medium businesses to shut down or pivot at a substantial loss, wreaking havoc on their investors, employees, and the families that depended on them,” the document states.
The power to move markets
So what did Styleform IT actually do?
The company was a contractor for a Swedish advertising company and claimed to create the first Swedish Facebook app—”Rosa Bandet” (“Pink Ribbon”), designed to raise breast cancer awareness. The app apparently raised more than €200,000 to support research of the disease.
Styleform went on to create another application, Klimatsmart (“Climate Smart”), again to use the “full friends list API and other Graph API endpoints” to operate, reaching more than 17,000 Facebook users. Another app, “Nyarsloften” (“New Year Resolutions”), suggested resolutions to friends and helped to track their progress.
Through these three apps, Styleform claims it spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to develop and maintain these apps and lost out on a contract worth millions as a result of Facebook’s actions.
“In short, Zuckerberg weaponized the data of one-third of the planet’s population in order to cover up his failure to transition Facebook’s business from desktop computers to mobile ads before the market became aware that Facebook’s 2012 and 2013 financial projections were false, due to Facebook having not accurately represented how quickly users were transitioning their time on the Internet from desktop computers to mobile phones,” the lawsuit continues.
Meanwhile, Soltani, who formerly worked at the Federal Trade Commission and helped start its Office of Technology Research and Investigation, added that the UK parliamentary hearing was the first time he’d seen any policymaker “connecting the dots between competition and privacy” and was hopeful that other regulators would take notice.
“Companies use personal information as a competitive tool and it seems like it’s finally in the public discourse that it’s not just about the control of information, but also the control of the information has strategic market advantages of who you share data with,” he said, adding that growth at any cost is Silicon Valley’s “dirty secret.”
“You can be a kingmaker of the app economy by allowing somebody to leverage personal information for the purpose of improved advertising but also virality and improved growth. Whether or not you have access to a friends list can make or break a company.”
Facebook has not formally responded to the lawsuit and no court hearings have been set.