Parliamentary select committees can be feisty – and Facebook discovered just how much last weekend when the digital and culture committee used rare powers from the commons serjeant-at-arms to seize a cache of privacy documents.
MPs used special legal powers to seize a cache of documents from Facebook on the Cambridge Analytica data scandal last weekend in an effort to establish what the social media giant knew about gaps in its data privacy controls before they exploded into public gaze earlier this year.
The papers were seized from Ted Kramer, the founder of US-based software company Six4Three, when he visited London last weekend. Damian Collins, chair of the DCMS select committee (pictured, centre), deployed rarely used parliamentary powers to demand the documents, held on Kramer’s laptop, as part of its ongoing inquiry into fake news.
After Kramer failed to deliver, the commons serjeant at arms was sent to his hotel to issue a final warning, with a two-hour deadline to comply. Kramer was then escorted to parliament and told he risked imprisonment if he continued to refuse to hand the documents over, the Observer reported on Sunday.
The seizure came ahead of an appearance at the committee on Tuesday by Facebook’s public policy vice president Richard Allen (pictured), at which politicians from Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, France, Ireland, Latvia and Singapore were represented, alongside UK MPs.
The committee has been infuriated by the failure of founder Mark Zuckerberg to appear before it – and on Tuesday it poured out further anger online, tweeting “9 countries. 24 official representatives. 447 million people represented. One question: where is Mark Zuckerberg?”
Allen, who took Zuckerberg’s place before the committee, said he took responsibility for his boss’s non-appearance.
Collins believes the Six4Three papers could offer insight into Facebook’s privacy controls – and vitally include correspondence between Zuckerberg and fellow Facebook executives. This correspondence could show what Zuckerberg knew about privacy gaps in the company’s partner API.
The partner API was used by Cambridge Analytica to mine data on 87m US voters from a base of 305,000 users. Cambridge Analytica is also alleged to have used data it obtained to target UK voters in the 2016 EU referendum.
Six4Three had used the same partner API to devise a way for people to search for pictures of their Facebook friends in bikinis. After Facebook closed off API access to friend data in 2015, Six4Three sued Facebook for destroying its line of business, hoping to recover the money it had invested in the app.
Facebook has demanded that the committee return of the Six4Three documents, insisting that they are part of US legal procedures, restricting their disclosure.
But Collins said the committee could publish the papers next week using parliamentary privilege.
“As you know, we have asked many questions of Facebook about its policies on sharing user data with developers, how these have been enforced, and how the company identifies activity by bad actors. We believe that the documents we have ordered from Six4Three could contain important information about this which is of a high public interest.
“We are also interested to know whether the policies of Facebook, as expressed within these documents, are consistent with the public statements the company has made on the same issues,” said Collins.
Observer journalist Carol Cadwalladr, who helped break the Cambridge Analytica story, tweeted that Collins’s action was “a VERY robust response…parliament is not messing around”.
Article updated on 28 November.