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Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

TechCrunch reported late Tuesday that Facebook had paid users, some of them teenagers, $20 a month to install software on their iPhones giving Facebook detailed access to everything taking place on the device.

Why it matters: We're all losing count of Facebook's privacy controversies, but this one is even more sensitive because it involves teens.

  • The social network now faces potential backlash from users and regulators, and it's also in hot water with Apple.

Facebook described the program as user research to analyze how teens use its own services and those of competitors. Late Tuesday night, Facebook defended the program, which dates back to 2016, but said it was discontinuing it for iOS users.

“Despite early reports, there was nothing 'secret' about this; it was literally called the Facebook Research App. It wasn't 'spying' as all of the people who signed up to participate went through a clear on-boarding process asking for their permission and were paid to participate. Finally, less than 5 percent of the people who chose to participate in this market research program were teens. All of them with signed parental consent forms.”
— Facebook spokesperson

The Apple conflict: Facebook's program, according to TechCrunch, used an apparently rewritten version of the Onavo software that Facebook pulled from the App Store last year after Apple said it violated its policies.

  • Facebook had the users install the software as an "enterprise profile," a setting typically reserved for letting big companies privately test and deploy their in-house software.
  • Apple responded this morning by revoking Facebook's enterprise license and said: "We designed our Enterprise Developer Program solely for the internal distribution of apps within an organization. Facebook has been using their membership to distribute a data-collecting app to consumers, which is a clear breach of their agreement with Apple."

Facebook is likely to argue that its research project is little different from the kind of tracking Nielsen has done for decades of TV viewing patterns, or Comscore's tallying of web usage. But those services didn't end up with the kind of total access to people's lives that Facebook is getting via their phones.

The price of data: By offering $20 a month to users who installed the software, Facebook at least acknowledged that people's data has monetary value. Instead of one penny for a teen's thoughts, Facebook is offering 2,000. That sum is unlikely to be enough to stem the tide of renewed cries of protest and calls for regulation this incident will release.

What they're saying:

  • Bloomberg's Sarah Frier: "$20 a month doesn't seem like a lot to give up that much data, but I guess the rest of FB users give them a lot for free!"
  • The Verge's Casey Newton: "The Facebook Research story is a real 'ask forgiveness, not permission' moment for a company that has already been asking for a lot of forgiveness."
  • SoFi comms VP Jim Prosser: "Only way this looks worse is if they had compensated the teens with Juul pods."

What's next: Facebook reports earnings this afternoon, and executives are sure to be grilled over this and other privacy issues.

Go deeper

Cuomo asks New York AG and chief judge to choose "independent" investigator into sexual harassment claims

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo at a press conference on Feb. 24. Photo: Seth Wenig/pool/AFP via Getty Images

A special counselor to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo released a statement on Sunday asking the state's attorney general and chief judge to jointly pick an "independent and qualified lawyer in private practice without political affiliation" to investigate claims of sexual harassment against the governor.

The state of play: The statement is an about-face from Cuomo, who had previously selected a former judge close to a top aide to lead the investigation, the New York Times reported, a move that was widely criticized.

Republican Sen. Sasse slams Nebraska GOP for "weird worship" of Trump after state party rebuke

Sen. Ben Sasse, (R-Neb.) Photo: Andrew Harnik - Pool/Getty Images

The Nebraska Republican Party on Saturday formally "rebuked" Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) for his vote to impeach former President Trump earlier this year, though it stopped short of a formal censure, CNN reports.

Why it matters: Sasse is the latest among a slate of Republicans who have faced some sort of punishment from their state party apparatus after voting to impeach the former president. The senator responded statement Saturday, per the Omaha World-Herald, saying "most Nebraskans don't think politics should be about the weird worship of one dude."

Cuomo barraged by fellow Dems after second harassment accusation

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo faced a barrage of criticism from fellow Democrats after The New York Times reported that the second former aide in four days had accused him of sexual harassment.

Why it matters: Cuomo had faced a revolt from legislators for his handling of nursing-home deaths from COVID. Now, the scandal is acutely personal, with obviously grave political risk.