Just days after Facebook again snubbed the UK Parliament by refusing to send CEO Mark Zuckerberg to testify at a hearing of the House of Commons select committee for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (the social media giant is sending a product VP instead), the DCMS has taken its revenge by seizing documents from a US lawsuit that could reveal what senior Facebook management knew and when about the company's data and privacy controls.
According to the Guardian, which broke the news about the seizure, the cache of documents could include "significant revelations about Facebook decisions on data and privacy controls that led to the Cambridge Analytica scandal." It's believed that the cache of documents includes confidential emails between senior Facebook executives - possibly even Zuckerberg himself.
But even more galling than the seizure itself is how DCMS went about it. The documents were seized from the CEO of a US startup, Six4Three, who had been traveling in the UK on business. Six4Three is suing Facebook, alleging abuses of data privacy similar to those that are being investigated in the UK and the US. Once Parliament learned that the startup's CEO was in the country, it demanded that he turn over the documents. When he refused, Parliament sent a sergeant at arms to his hotel room to deliver the warning in person. When he again refused, he was escorted to Parliament and threatened with imprisonment.
Damian Collins, the chair of the culture, media and sport select committee, invoked a rare parliamentary mechanism to compel the founder of a US software company, Six4Three, to hand over the documents during a business trip to London. In another exceptional move, parliament sent a serjeant at arms to his hotel with a final warning and a two-hour deadline to comply with its order. When the software firm founder failed to do so, it’s understood he was escorted to parliament. He was told he risked fines and even imprisonment if he didn’t hand over the documents.
But Damian Collins, the chair of the committee, said these brazen actions were justified due to Facebook's refusal to cooperate, as well as a company representatives' misleading comments before Parliament earlier this year about the level of control Facebook users have over their data. According to Collins, the DCMS has been "following" Six4Three's lawsuit against Facebook, and believes the documents could contain the information that the committee has been seeking.
"We are in uncharted territory," said Collins, who also chairs an inquiry into fake news. "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."
"We have very serious questions for Facebook. 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," he said.
"We have followed this court case in America and we believed these documents contained answers to some of the questions we have been seeking about the use of data, especially by external developers."
Those who have been following this drama since the spring will remember that Zuckerberg insisted that the company had no knowledge of illegal data harvesting by Cambridge Analytica. It's very possible that the correspondence in the seized documents could out Zuckerberg as a liar. That would only further enrage Parliament, possibly leading to some kind of sanction or punishment, or even a warrant for Zuckerberg's arrest (lying to Congress is illegal, after all). That's the last thing Facebook shareholders want (considering that they've already watched the company's shares erase more than $100 billion in valuation since the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke earlier this year.
Given that Parliament is located in the UK, a jurisdiction that is beyond the reach of US courts, one would expect that there's little to be done within the US legal system to try and enjoin Parliament from reading the documents. But that didn't stop Facebook from trying.
The files are subject to an order of a Californian superior court, so cannot be shared or made public, at risk of being found in contempt of court. Because the MPs’ summons was issued in London where parliament has jurisdiction, it is understood the company founder, although a US citizen, had no choice but to comply. It is understood that Six4Three have informed both the court in California and Facebook’s lawyers.
Unsurprisingly, members of DCMS laughed in Zuckerberg's face, with one MP tweeting that it was "too late"...
Facebook said: “The materials obtained by the DCMS committee are subject to a protective order of the San Mateo Superior Court restricting their disclosure. We have asked the DCMS committee to refrain from reviewing them and to return them to counsel or to Facebook.” Too late.— Ian Lucas MP (@IanCLucas) November 25, 2018
...While Collins ominously tweeted that there would be "more next week."
More next week - Parliament seizes cache of Facebook internal papers https://t.co/129OkaGe7k— Damian Collins (@DamianCollins) November 25, 2018
This is coming at the worst possible time for Facebook: its are in free fall, a backlash is growing inside the US after reports that it hired a Republican oppo research organization to smear George Soros, and accusations that it has facilitated the spread of "Fake News" are once again back in the headlines. Though he still retains nearly absolute control of the company, Zuckerberg's grip on power has almost never looked shakier.