UK Parliament enters “unchartered territory” by seizing internal Facebook documents
Further to the update we released last month regarding the £500,000 fine issued by the ICO against Facebook (available here), additional action has been taken against Facebook, in relation to the investigation of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
However, this time, it is the UK Parliament who have taken action, by seizing internal Facebook documents. The documents are believed to contain information which will assist in the investigation of Facebook’s involvement in the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
Ted Kramer, the founder of Six4Three, a US software company, was visiting the UK on business last week. This company are currently involved in litigation against Facebook and so Kramer had the relevant documents within his possession during his business trip.
It transpires that the documents which Kramer was ordered to hand over to the UK Parliament were “anti-SLAPP opposition papers”. “SLAPP” stands for “Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation” and anti-SLAPP actions are brought in the US in order to seek early dismissal of meritless or retaliatory lawsuits which are merely brought to censor critics who have spoken out publicly. In relation to their dispute with Facebook, Six4Three have opposed Facebook’s anti-SLAPP motion and Parliament are presumably of the view that there could be information within these documents pertaining to Facebook’s involvement in the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
A serjeant at arms arrived at Kramer’s hotel room ordering that the documents be handed over. He was given a final warning and a two hour timeframe within which to comply.
When Kramer failed to comply, he was escorted to Parliament and was informed that, if he did not release the documents, he may be subject to a fine or a term of imprisonment. Following this, the Parliament’s Committee on Culture, Media and Sport reported that it had received the relevant documents.
Why were the documents seized?
The documents are alleged to contain details of the data and privacy controls which were in place prior to the publicity surrounding Facebook’s involvement in the Cambridge Analytica scandal. The documents are believed to include confidential email correspondence between senior Facebook executives and correspondence with Mark Zuckerberg, the Chief Executive of Facebook. Further, it is thought that the documents offer information in relation to Cambridge Analytica’s use of Facebook data, which was used to target potential voters in political campaigns.
Mark Zuckerberg has been frequently asked to appear before Parliament to provide information in relation to the Cambridge Analytica scandal. However, he has repeatedly refused to appear to answer their queries. Therefore, this has led Members of Parliament to explore other avenues in order to obtain further details about Facebook’s involvement in the scandal.
Why is the seizure significant?
The Parliament’s decision to use its rare power is particularly significant. Damian Collins, Chairman of the Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee has stated:
“We are in unchartered territory. 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.”
Additionally, the fact that the documents seized are thought to contain important information in relation to Facebook’s involvement in the Cambridge Analytica scandal means that the seizure is particularly noteworthy.
It is also significant since the documents had been ordered to “remain under seal” by virtue of a Californian Court Order. This means that, although the documents were filed with the Californian Court, they were not to become a matter of public record. However, when Kramer arrived in the UK, he became subject to UK law and so the Parliament took this opportunity to intervene in spite of the Californian Court Order.
The seizure is also particularly significant due to a court filing which has disclosed details about the severe circumstances of the seizure (available here). Upon arriving at Parliament, Kramer was questioned for two hours, without legal representation. Kramer is said to have “panicked” after being told that he was in contempt of Parliament and that he risked facing fines and imprisonment.
Kramer then searched the dropbox folder where the documents were stored and searched for keywords to find the “anti-SLAPP opposition papers” that he had been ordered to hand over. It would appear that prior to this incident, Kramer did not know that he even had access to these documents and therefore had not previously attempted to view them. This all occurred whilst two staff members were present, one of whom was “directly viewing Mr Kramer’s screen”. Kramer then transferred the files onto a USB drive, which he then handed over. He did this, in spite of his knowledge that the documents were not to be disclosed by virtue of the Californian Court Order.
In light of the events disclosed within the court filing, Parliament’s intervention appears particularly draconian.
What happened next?
On Tuesday, Facebook appeared in a hearing in London before an “international grand committee”. This committee consists of legislators from seven countries, including Canada, Argentina and Singapore, who are involved in investigating Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg failed to attend the hearing but Richard Allan, Facebook’s European head of policy, appeared in order to respond to the committee’s questions about the company’s collection, storage and use of data.
After the hearing, the “International Principles for the Law Governing the Internet” was signed by the committee, to make “a declaration on future action”.
Damian Collins is still threatening to release the confidential emails obtained as a result of Parliament’s seizure of the documents. We await to see whether Damian Collins follows through with this threat.
Watch this space!
This article was co-written by Charlotte Fleming.