Because Facebook wasn't looking awful enough already, some newly unsealed documents from a lawsuit going back a few years are now making the company look even worse, and certainly not doing the company any favors in its efforts to rehabilitate its reputation. Unfortunately, so far, Reveal, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting, seems to only be revealing snippets of what's in the documents, rather than the full documents (come on guys...), but what they're sharing doesn't look great.
Specifically, a judge has unsealed previously sealed records from a 2012 class action lawsuit that was settled in 2016, concerning Facebook profiting off of children. The origins of the lawsuit involved a child who got his mother's credit card to play a game on Facebook, without realizing that the more he played, the more of his mother's money he was spending -- compounded by Facebook then refusing to refund the charges. The latest revelations show that Facebook employees knew that they made this information confusing, in a way that people (kids and adults alike) might not realize they were still spending money off of a credit card, and also having joking conversations about people trying to get their money back. Indeed, the snippet Reveal has released has Facebook employees referring to one teenager as "a whale" -- a term used in casinos to refer to big spenders.
In one of the unsealed documents, two Facebook employees deny a refund request from a child whom they refer to as a “whale” – a term coined by the casino industry to describe profligate spenders. The child had entered a credit card number to play a game, and in about two weeks racked up thousands of dollars in charges, according to an excerpt of messages between two employees at the social media giant.Gillian: Would you refund this whale ticket? User is disputing ALL charges… Michael: What’s the users total lifetime spend? Gillian: It’s $6,545 – but card was just added on Sept. 2. They are disputing all of it I believe. That user looks underage as well. Well, maybe not under 13. Michael: Is the user writing in a parent, or is this user a 13ish year old Gillian: It’s a 13ish yr old. says its 15. looks a bit younger. she* not its. Lol. Michael: ... I wouldn’t refund Gillian: Oh that’s fine. cool. agreed. just double checking
Fine. Cool. Agreed. Or not. Not cool at all. And that's even if you argue (as some have on Twitter) that the "whale" comment is actually a typo for "whole" (and argument multiple people who worked in the space dispute, noting that "whale"/casino terminology was common in online games).
While you might just chalk this up to a conversation among perhaps lower level Facebook employees with screwed up incentives, Reveal notes that other documents make it clear that people within Facebook knew that their confusing UI was contributing to a problem:
Facebook employees began voicing their concerns that people were being charged without their knowledge. The social media company decided to analyze one of the most popular games of the time, Angry Birds, and discovered the average age of people playing it on Facebook was 5 years old, according to newly revealed information.
“In nearly all cases the parents knew their child was playing Angry Birds, but didn’t think the child would be allowed to buy anything without their password or authorization first,” according to an internal Facebook memo. The memo noted that on other platforms, such as Apple’s iPhone, people were required to reauthorize additional purchases, such as by re-entering a password.
A Facebook employee noted that children were likely to be confused by the in-game purchases because it “doesn’t necessarily look like real money to a minor.”
The documents also note that Facebook didn't send receipts for these purchases, meaning that parents wouldn't know about them until way later when the credit card bill shows up. Oh yeah, also "links on the company’s website to dispute charges frequently failed to work."
While one might try to argue that this is something that happened many years ago, when Facebook wasn't that careful about things, the company's reaction to these documents finally being revealed isn't great either:
In response to a request for an interview, Facebook provided a one-sentence statement: “We appreciate the court’s careful review of these materials.”
That's... not going to cut it. In the past year, almost every internet company I talk to is simply seething about Facebook and how it's basically destroying everything with the hamfisted way it deals with... almost everything. The company's ongoing and never-ending "apology tour" isn't changing anything, and if the company can't figure out that it has to take real ownership of its many problems, past and present, it's never going to fix them, nor rebuild trust. Responding with that sort of PR speak, rather than saying "we royally fucked up, but that was many years ago, and here are all the concrete steps we've taken to fix this" is just incompetent. The company has been in the limelight for so long yet it still doesn't seem to fathom how to deal honestly with a press that is calling out its many faults. While it is true that plenty of press coverage of Facebook in the past year has been misleading or unfair, the unwillingness of the company to take its real problems seriously, is a huge issue not just for Facebook, but for every other internet company as well.