British parliament drops the kid gloves in Facebook fight

When Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg refused to appear before Britain’s parliament in May to answer questions about Facebook’s role in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, he may have assumed there would be few repercussions. But in an unprecedented move over the US Thanksgiving weekend, the British government used a little-known feature of UK law to compel a tech executive to hand over documents related to a court case between his company and Facebook. What’s more, the British MP who pushed parliament to do so is threatening to make all the documents public, even though they have been sealed by a US court.

The way this incident played out seems like a scene from a James Bond movie: the executive—Ted Kramer, CEO of a company called Six4Three—was ordered to surrender documents he had on his laptop, including email conversations with Facebook about a dispute over API access for his app. When Kramer refused, the Serjeant-at-Arms, the person in charge of official protocol in parliament, showed up at his hotel room and escorted him to the House of Commons, where Kramer was forced to turn the files over to the committee or potentially face a fine, or even imprisonment.

Not only is it rare for Britain’s parliament to compel an executive to turn over documents in this way, but Kramer is an American citizen who just happened to be on a business trip to London, which makes the British government’s jurisdiction over him questionable. In addition, the documents that the MP—Damian Collins, the head of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee—wanted turned over have been sealed by a California court, and therefore aren’t supposed to be made public.

This may be the first time it has been used successfully in a case involving Facebook, but it’s not the first time a member of Britain’s parliament has threatened the company with a formal summons to appear. Earlier this year, Collins said publicly that the next time Mark Zuckerberg happened to be on a business trip to the UK, he could be served with a summons and effectively forced to testify before the House of Commons committee. 

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“We are in uncharted territory,” Collins told The Observer about his use of the summons to seize documents from Kramer. “This is an unprecedented move but it’s an unprecedented situation. We’ve failed to get answers from Facebook and we believe the documents contain information of very high public interest. It misled us about Russian involvement on the platform. And it has not answered our questions about who knew what, when with regards to the Cambridge Analytica scandal.”

Ironically, given Mark Zuckerberg’s history, the app involved in the Six4Three lawsuit was designed to find photos of attractive women in bathing suits (before Facebook, Zuckerberg created an app called FaceMash that allowed users to rate female students based on their attractiveness). But Collins isn’t interested in the company’s documents because he cares about the details of the lawsuit between Six4Three and Facebook. Instead, Collins seems to be hoping the emails and other documents will show how the social network handled access to personal information in cases similar to the Cambridge Analytica fiasco.

To recap that case, in 2014 Facebook’s API still allowed apps to suck up data on all of a user’s Facebook friends whenever a user registered with an app. That kind of access was later turned off, but before it went away, a researcher who created a personality quiz got access to friend data on 50 million users and then gave or sold that data to  Cambridge Analytica, in contravention of Facebook’s rules. Cambridge then allegedly used some of that data to create psychographic profiles of potential voters, and may have used those profiles to target content on Facebook, including content related to Donald Trump’s campaign for president in 2016.

It seems likely that Collins (who has a reputation within Britain for being a bit of a show-off) wanted to send a very public message to Facebook and its CEO that the British government is not something to be trifled with. Whether or not the Six4Three document trove contains anything like a smoking gun with which to go after Facebook or its data policies remains to be seen.

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Mathew Ingram is CJR's chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in The Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as Reuters and Bloomberg.