A Hot Seat for Facebook, an Empty Chair for Zuckerberg and a Vow to Share Secret Files

Posted November 27, 2018 10:58 p.m. EST
Updated November 27, 2018 11:00 p.m. EST

LONDON — Officials from nine countries examining Facebook’s business practices have spent weeks trying to get the company’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, to face questions at a hearing.

On Tuesday in London, Zuckerberg was represented by an empty chair.

He skipped the session, which was organized by a British committee investigating Facebook and the spread of misinformation. In Zuckerberg’s absence, officials spent more than three hours grilling a Facebook executive who stood in for him, criticizing the company’s influence on democracy, its distribution of false news, and its use of sensitive user data.

“You have lost the trust of the international community,” said Charlie Angus, an official representing Canada. He was joined by policymakers from Argentina, Brazil, Ireland, Latvia, Singapore, France, Belgium and Britain.

The hearing was built up by panel members as a moment of international accountability for Facebook. While the panel has no authority to impose laws or fines, it was a rare collaboration to investigate a company that is facing scrutiny after revelations about privacy breaches and its role in spreading propaganda and fomenting ethnic strife.

Anticipation had built in recent days after the British official who called the hearing, Damian Collins, hinted that he might also release secret internal Facebook documents. The documents were originally uncovered during a California lawsuit over data sharing between Facebook and the maker of an app called Six4Three, and are under seal in the United States.

But Collins did not release the documents on Tuesday, saying he needed more time to go through them.

That left most of the hearing’s spotlight on Richard Allan, Facebook’s vice president for policy solutions, who attended the session in place of Zuckerberg and who sat next to the empty seat left for his boss.

Allan, also a member of the British House of Lords, said Facebook accepted a need for new regulation, without specifying which policies it would support.

“We have damaged public trust through some of the actions we’ve taken,” said Allan, who later repeated variations of the same apology.

He added, “There were things that we missed that we were either not sufficiently focused on or too slow to react to.”

But policymakers at the hearing were less than satisfied. Several brought up Zuckerberg’s no-show.

“We don’t have Mr. Zuckerberg here today, which is incredibly unfortunate and I think speaks to a failure to account for the loss of trust certainly across the world,” said Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, another Canadian official.

Others called for tougher regulations, including one member who suggested it was time to break up Facebook, which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp.

Collins weighed in by referring to information in some of the internal Facebook documents that he obtained, including a 2014 email from a Facebook engineer who had raised questions about access to the platform coming from Russia. The issue is sensitive since Russia used Facebook to manipulate U.S. voters during the 2016 presidential election.

In a statement on Tuesday, Facebook said that “the engineer who had flagged those initial concerns subsequently looked into this further and found no evidence of specific Russian activity.” Facebook also released the emails.

Other policymakers, alluding to other internal Facebook documents, asked whether the company had ever restricted app developers’ access to user data unless the developer had purchased mobile advertising. The company does not engage in such quid pro quo arrangements, Allan said.

Collins said he hoped to release the cache of internal Facebook documents within the “next week or so.” The panel, he added, was still going through the papers to decide what was in the public interest to disclose and what information might need to be redacted to protect personal information.

Collins has faced questions about the methods he used to obtain the Facebook documents, which he got last week by dispatching Parliament’s sergeant-at-arms to force the founder of Six4Three, Ted Kramer, to share the information while on a business trip to London. In papers filed on Monday in California, lawyers for Kramer and Six4Three said Collins was put in touch with Kramer by Carole Cadwalladr, a reporter for The Guardian and The Observer.

Both Cadwalladr and Collins — at times working in concert — had sought to persuade Kramer to provide documents under seal in the litigation, in violation of a California court’s order. Kramer said that Cadwalladr was the only person he had told where he was staying in London, suggesting she may have alerted Collins.

Cadwalladr did not respond to requests for comment.

(The Guardian, The Observer and The New York Times collaborated this year on a joint investigation into Cambridge Analytica, the now-defunct political consulting firm; Cadwalladr was among the reporters who worked on the investigation. The Times is also among several news organizations that have asked the California court to unseal some confidential documents in the Six4Three litigation.)

Collins defended the committee, saying it has the jurisdiction to get information related to its inquiry on British soil.

While both Parliament and the U.S. Congress have occasionally used their privileges to publish otherwise confidential materials, legal experts said it was rare — if not unprecedented — for a British lawmaker to use those powers to subvert the lawful order of a U.S. court.

“Now you’ve got a clash between the court in California and the obligations in Parliament,” said Mark Stephens, a lawyer based in London who specializes in international litigation. “We do see things like this from time to time. But we’ve never had a foreign court be put in this situation before.”