Facebook developers seek answers from Zuckerberg at conference

SAN FRANCISCO -- Mark Zuckerberg's apology tour may not be over yet.

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Benny Evangelista
, San Francisco Chronicle

SAN FRANCISCO -- Mark Zuckerberg's apology tour may not be over yet.

This week, the Facebook CEO heads to San Jose for the company's annual developers conference, where he will face thousands of anxious technologists and entrepreneurs who depend on Facebook for their livelihoods -- and know quite a bit more about how the company works than members of Congress.

The conference, known as F8, has often been a lovefest -- a chance for Zuckerberg and his top lieutenants to energize the people and companies that aren't a formal part of Facebook but build products and services that tap into the vast social network.

This year, things are different. The Menlo Park company is trying to recover from revelations that Cambridge Analytica, a British consulting firm linked to Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, improperly obtained data several years ago from the profiles of up to 87 million Facebook users.

Testifying before the House and Senate in Washington this month, Zuckerberg repeatedly admitted the company should have acted more quickly on both privacy and the spread of fake news, apologized for missteps and promised to do better. The newly contrite company has tightened up its rules on data collection and sharing.

But while those rule changes may reduce the erosion of privacy for the 2.2 billion Facebook users around the world, they are stirring angst among developers, many of whom rely on reams of data gleaned from profiles to provide research for clients or to market their games or apps.

Going into F8, ``my biggest concern isn't so much that there's going to be changes, but what type of changes are going to take place,'' said Marc Fischer, CEO and founder of Dogtown Media, a Venice Beach company that has created mobile apps like RoadTrip Nation.

Dogtown Media relies heavily on Facebook to expand its audience and understand its apps' performance. Fischer said Facebook needs to take a page from Apple, which ``has done a good job of telling developers what they accept and what they won't accept.''

More than 5,000 people are expected to attend the two-day conference, which begins Tuesday, at the McEnery Convention Center. The conference moved to San Jose last year after two years at San Francisco's scenic Fort Mason Center.

Zuckerberg will open the event with a keynote address. Last year, he outlined an idyllic future where people socialized online as virtual reality cartoon avatars or placed augmented-reality fish around their cereal bowls. The company also revealed it was researching ways to let people type using signals from their brains and to hear through their skins.

This year, his speech is sure to reference the recent changes Facebook has made as it tightens data security. The company recently began an audit for suspicious activity from apps, and made numerous changes to its application programming interface, or API, limiting the types of information that outside apps can access about members of Facebook and Instagram, the photo-sharing network owned by Facebook.

Many of these changes were made quickly -- breaking a promise the company made to developers in 2014 that it would not roll out changes until two years after announcing them.

Constant flux is unsettling for companies that rely on Facebook. For example, when one set of changes were made April 4, the dating app Tinder said members who logged in using their Facebook accounts were trapped in a never-ending loop, according to Wired magazine. The glitch was quickly fixed. Tinder did not respond to a message seeking comment.

Michiko Gupta, senior digital strategist for Lipman Hearne, a Chicago branding and communications firm that specializes in educational and philanthropic organizations, said Zuckerberg needs to use his speech at F8 to explain what's coming next.

``If Facebook doesn't talk about the issues developers are facing and what they are going to do about it, they will have unhappy customers,'' Gupta said in an email.

Besides discussing the programming changes, Zuckerberg is also expected to highlight Facebook's latest technologies and reportedly will introduce a stand-alone Oculus Go virtual reality headset. The rapper Logic will headline an afterparty on Tuesday.

But it is developers' concerns that will take center stage.

New York entrepreneur Federico Treu said that his company has felt devastating effects from the new data policies. Facebook suspended his marketing research firm, Cubeyou, without warning two days before Zuckerberg began testifying on Capitol Hill, he said.

``We invested millions in this, and we're a small company, so to be just thrown under the bus because of political pressure, that was really disconcerting,'' Treu said.

Treu said the suspension came minutes before CNBC posted a story saying his firm collected data through social quizzes in a way that was ``eerily similar'' to the way Cambridge Analytica received unauthorized data.

The 30-employee firm enjoyed preferred Facebook developer status for more than five years, but ``they shut us down and they shut down the communication channels,'' Treu said. ``The only way we got to them is through lawyers.''

Treu said Cubeyou had nothing to do with Cambridge Analytica and denied any wrongdoing, including sharing information about specific Facebook users with clients. CNBC has updated its story with clarifications, but Facebook has not lifted the suspension.

``We take very seriously any report of suspicious activity that could threaten people's privacy,'' a Facebook statement said. ``After learning of claims of information misuse by Cubeyou, we made the careful decision to suspend and audit them. This is part of a broader ongoing investigation into apps that had access to large amounts of information before we changed our platform data access policies in 2014.''

As part of its earlier changes, Facebook tightened its rules around apps harvesting data from users' friends. Before that, in 2014, Cambridge Analytica had obtained information on vast numbers of Facebook users through a licensing deal with a researcher whose quiz app on Facebook was installed by several hundred thousand people. The app took in data from those users' unwitting friends, leading to a pool of millions.

App developer Sam Eckert of Stuttgart, Germany, holds a relatively sanguine view of Facebook's latest changes. Eckert develops iOS apps, such as a cryptocurrency app Bittracker and a game named ``Boaty McBoatface.''

``If developers are just honest about which exact data they want, why they want it and how they will use it, users will give it to them, if that makes sense,'' said Eckert in an email.

Eckert, who plans to attend F8, wasn't surprised by the Cambridge Analytica fallout. ``It was clear to me way before all of that happened that Facebook does not really care about user privacy,'' he said. ``What was interesting to me is the fact that somehow for the first time, a majority of Americans realized what Facebook was doing with their data.''

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