Internal Facebook documents have been seized by the British parliament in an aggressive move that will likely set the tone for a high-stakes hearing due to take place this week.
Damian Collins, chair of the U.K.’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee (DCMS), used a rare parliamentary power to compel Ted Kramer, the founder of app-maker Six4Three, to hand over the documents during a business trip to London, The Observer newspaper reported late Saturday.
The files are reported to contain confidential emails in relation to Facebook’s data and privacy controls in the run-up to the firm’s data scandal earlier this year. It has also been reported that the cache of documents contains emailed correspondence with Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg and other senior executives.
The news comes as Facebook readies itself for a crucial hearing before the DCMS committee in London on Tuesday, which is set to be attended by Richard Allen, the company’s vice president of policy solutions, as well as political officials from Canada, Ireland, Latvia and Singapore. Zuckerberg snubbed the committee several times when asked to appear and provide evidence.
According to multiple media reports, the procedure to obtain the documents was attended by the serjeant at arms, an official responsible for maintaining order in the House of Commons, the lower chamber of the U.K. parliament.
Collins confirmed that the committee had obtained the documents from Six4Three. “I have reviewed them and the committee will discuss how we will proceed early next week,” he wrote via Twitter.
The @CommonsCMS has received the documents it ordered from Six4Three relating to Facebook. I have reviewed them and the committee will discuss how we will proceed early next week. Under UK law & parliamentary privilege we can publish papers if we choose to as part of our inquiry
— Damian Collins (@DamianCollins) November 25, 2018
Now-defunct U.S. firm Six4Three, which developed an app called Pikinis that let people pay to find pictures of users in swimsuits, is currently engaged in a legal battle with Facebook. The Pikinis app was shut down in 2015 after Facebook changed its policies around the sharing of user data with third-party app developers. Six4Three argues Facebook drove developers away through anti-competitive means.
The internal documents seized by U.K. lawmakers relate to the lawsuit, and were reportedly obtained by Kramer’s lawyers through the legal discovery process.
“Six4Three’s claims are entirely meritless — Facebook has never traded Facebook data for anything and we’ve always made clear that developer access is subject to both our policies and what info people choose to share,” a Facebook spokesperson told CNBC in an email.
“We operate in a fiercely competitive market in which people connect and share. For every service offered on Facebook and our family of apps, you can find at least three or four competing services with hundreds of millions, if not billions, of users.”
Facebook’s Allen told Collins in an email that, as the papers are part of legal proceedings, they should be treated as “sub judice” — meaning they should be kept out of the public eye as they are under judicial consideration — according to a copy of the email sent by Facebook to CNBC.
“I am conscious of your committee’s hearing on Tuesday where I am due to appear,” Allen said in the email. “I understand that Parliamentary privilege protects participants for anything said during a hearing of your committee. However, I am also mindful that this matter is sub judice before a court in California.”
Allen added: “It may be helpful for us to discuss this matter again after we have further guidance from the court.”
The DCMS select committee declined to comment on the documents.
But Collins said the parliamentary committee could release the papers as part of its inquiry into Facebook’s data practices, as it is protected by British law and parliamentary privilege.
Pressure piling up
Facebook has been embroiled in a public relations disaster over the way it allowed the data of 87 million people to be shared with Cambridge Analytica, a controversial political consultancy that helped Donald Trump’s campaign during the 2016 presidential election. The social media firm’s share price has suffered since initial reports about the issue were published, and is currently down over 27 percent year-to-date.
U.K. privacy watchdog the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) issued a maximum fine of £500,000 ($641,600) to Facebook over its handling of user data. However, the tech giant has said it will appeal the fine, arguing that the ICO found no evidence that British user data had been shared with Cambridge Analytica.
The social network recently chose former U.K. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg to replace Elliott Schrage as its head of global policy and communications. The move garnered much attention at the time, and was seen as unusual given Clegg’s track record — the ex-Liberal Democrat leader gained notoriety after the U.K. government tripled university tuition fees, despite Clegg’s promise to oppose any increase in fees.
The company is also under fire for hiring the PR firm Definers to push a negative narrative about Facebook’s competitors and to look into billionaire philanthropist George Soros. Outgoing Schrage last week took the rap for the debacle, but denied claims that Facebook had asked Definers to create or distribute fake news.