When news broke in March that data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica had improperly used tens of millions of users’ data for ad targeting, it became clear that Facebook would have to make significant changes to its developer platform. The company quickly shut down its app review process, as well as a number of API endpoints.
Two months later, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced at the company’s annual WWDC conference that the process was opening back up, this time with tighter standards. The company gave developers with existing access to a handful of APIs — including Pages, Groups, Events, and Messenger — a deadline of August 1 to resubmit their apps for review or have their access to these APIs revoked.
“I know it hasn’t been easy being a developer these past couple months, and that’s probably an understatement,” Zuckerberg said.
But the process for submitting apps for approval — which developers now have less than 24 hours to do — has remained rocky. On July 2, the company said it was completing Messenger bot reviews in an average of three days — but the review process for apps looking to access Facebook Login, Pages API, and Groups API was taking an average of seven weeks.
VentureBeat spoke with six developers who had been through the app review since the company reopened the process in May. Three got their apps approved and said the process took anywhere from three days to two months — consistent with what Facebook told developers to expect. But three were still waiting for their apps to be approved after submitting their applications approximately two months, one month, and two weeks ago, respectively.
“While the review is pending, we still have access to permissions they granted us in the past. However, I need a new permission to release a new feature,” Nicolas Le Roux, creator of a newsletter bot for Messenger called Botletter, told VentureBeat. Botletter’s review has been pending for two months.
In the July 2 post, Facebook said it hoped to reduce this wait time significantly in the coming weeks. When contacted by VentureBeat, a Facebook spokesperson said that the company didn’t have an update to share at this time regarding whether it has been able to reduce the wait time.
“As always, we continue work to improve the App Review process, including making it more streamlined and transparent. We will continue to communicate these changes to developers, including on the Facebook for Developer blog and our App Review website,” a Facebook spokesperson told VentureBeat.
Additionally, three of the developers VentureBeat spoke with had to resubmit their apps for review after failing the first time. Two of these developers said Facebook told them it was because they hadn’t done a clear enough job explaining why their apps needed access to the requested data, which seems to have been the biggest challenge developers have encountered. As part of the app review process, developers now have to submit a “screencast that clearly demonstrates the end-to-end experience [of the app].”
“Apparently [our] first video wasn’t explicit enough with showing how the data helped the end user,” James Hall, founder of Atlanta-based creative development agency Hall and All, told VentureBeat in an email. He said it took him about two months to get an app approved for a client.
When asked by VentureBeat what the company looks for in screencasts, a Facebook spokesperson simply said that the reviewers work with “each of these developers individually to make sure we have what we need for the review.”
Friendly social media APIs are ‘going the way of the dodo’
In conversations with developers, a few themes emerged. For one thing, this isn’t the first time Facebook has made sudden API changes. One of the most well-known examples was in 2015, when Facebook announced that it was shutting down the Friends data API that allowed developers to access Facebook data of the friends of people who had downloaded their apps. Piotr Gajos, chief innovation officer of digital innovation firm Sourcebits, told VentureBeat that he’s advised his customers to avoid integrating with Facebook’s APIs in any manner besides authentication for the past three years.
Most third-party developers will still go where their customers are. But while the API changes Facebook has made in the wake of Cambridge Analytica haven’t changed how many developers view and work with Facebook, some of their customers are proving less eager to integrate their products with Facebook in the wake of the news.
“I think if anything the [Cambridge Analytica] stuff has done for us, is made it easier to explain to our clients WHY it’s hard to get data now,” Hall told VentureBeat. “Unfortunately, the days of friendly APIs from big social companies are going the way of the dodo.”
Still, the amount of data that Facebook holds is a powerful lure for some companies. Thomas Reiter, cofounder of Vienna, Austria-based Chatpointment, said his company had no plans to abandon Facebook, as it’s still an important channel for messaging. Chatpointment allows companies to connect its chatbot to their Facebook page so customers can book appointments via Messenger. Reiter said it took Chatpointment about a month to get its app approved and that it failed the process once, which he detailed in a Medium post.
VentureBeat also spoke with two developers who are holding off on submitting their apps for review or moving ahead with new integrations, as they anticipate that Facebook will make more changes to its developer platform in the coming months.
“I’d rather wait for [more policy changes] than put ourselves into an uncertain situation,” Jeff Standard, cofounder and head of product for Drivemode, told VentureBeat in a phone interview. Drivemode makes a phone’s interface safer for driving by enabling voice reply on a number of apps.
In mid-March, Drivemode submitted an app that allows users to upload photos or videos from a road trip to Facebook. Standard said he was expecting the app to be approved in one to two days — that is, until the first Cambridge Analytica story broke. Standard said he ended up withdrawing Drivemode’s application after not hearing anything from Facebook for two months.
Nearly all of the developers VentureBeat spoke with said they understand why Facebook reacted the way they did — to show that it is proactively trying to stop future Cambridge Analytica-type incidents. Still, they wish that the company had provided more updates to developers and been more clear about what they needed to do in order to pass the app review.
“The feedback we got with our [first] rejection was generic and scarce. It would have helped if the rejection included some concrete feedback relating to specific issues in our app, or if there was a way to directly communicate with the reviewers,” said Chatpointment’s Reiter.