International politicos gather round to grill Dick, head of Facebook policy, on data slurping

MPs give a sneak preview of content in seized documents, empty-chair Zuck

British MPs have teased some of the bombshell details lurking in a cache of internal Facebook emails seized last week – and challenged the social network to unseal the documents before the committee releases them.

The politicians took the unprecedented step of using an archaic Parliamentary procedure to get their hands on the documents, which they believed held crucial info on the sorry saga around Facebook's ravenous data-harvesting, and political interference by apps and its users in the UK, US and beyond.

The documents were under legal seal in America as part of a court case brought against Facebook by app biz Six4Three – but Blighty's MPs are able to refer to the content under Parliamentary privilege.

Which is exactly what they did on Tuesday, at the first-ever “international grand committee”, which saw reps from nine nations grill Facebook’s veep for policy Richard Allan for a couple of hours, before issuing a set of principles of internet regulation. CEO Mark Zuckerberg was asked to attend, but funnily enough, didn't show up.

Although the MPs didn’t release the cache – as Facebook feared and critics hoped – Damian Collins, who chairs Parliament's digital committee did summarise parts of the seized emails. One claimed that an engineer at Facebook had, in 2014, told the firm that “entities with Russian IP addresses” had used a Pinterest API to pull in three billion data points each day from Facebook.

The accusation adds grist to the mill of those who say the social media platform knew about Russian interference much earlier than it claims to have.

Facebook, of course, moved to downplay the claim, telling press after the event that “the engineers who had flagged these initial concerns subsequently looked into this further and found no evidence of specific Russian activity.” In other words, the API calls were from legit users, in Facebook's mind, and were not in the "billions" as first claimed..

Facebook is 'misrepresenting' documents' significance

The firm is, unsurprisingly, furious that the British MPs have seen the documents, and are seeking to discredit the source: Six4Three and its founder Ted Kramer. In today’s committee hearing, Allan described him as a “hostile litigant,” and took the stance that the cache contained only “partial discussions.”/p>

However, during a press conference Collins expressed his frustrations with this attitude, saying that Allan – and Facebook – has the “luxury of being able to take an opinion” on documents still under wraps from public view. In contrast, Kramer and Six4Three can’t say anything because Facebook has had the US court seal the documents on which the arguments are based.

“They [Facebook] are trying to pretend that this is all spurious allegations or carefully selected internal documents… “I think that is a misrepresentation of the significance of the documents,” he said.

“That’s why I think it now need to be put out into the open. The comments from Facebook in the last few days… they are now speaking about the nature of the case.”

He said that the committee was planning to publish the documents, but that there would be a thorough review process first to redact any personal information and so that only information relevant to this inquiry would be made public.

Ads for data

Allan was also grilled on the prospect that Facebook tied developers’ access to user data to purchases of ads for the mobile platform – another claim that is understood to be set out in the Six4Three case. In effect, app makers could access profile information if they bought ads, it is claimed.

Canadian Nathaniel Eskine-Smith asked a series of questions that appeared to be based on these claims – although Collins said only the British MPs have had sight of the documents.

They included whether developers were treated differently if they purchased an ad product, or otherwise gave Facebook money, and whether Facebook ever told an app developer they needed to buy ads, or otherwise cough up cash, to get access to data. Allan tried to deflect, saying that he wasn’t aware of it – but that it was “a very specific question”.

It is, though, one Facebook could have easily predicted, which neatly demonstrates another bugbear of the politicians on the committee: That execs rely on the answer “I’ll get back to you on that,” even for questions that could have been prepared for.

“We’re desperately trying to get to the nub of this,” said Brendan UK MP O’Hara later on, adding that there was a “certain irony” in them having to resort to letter after letter in order to get answers from an online giant.

Where is the frat boy billionaire?

The hearing was speckled with outright and oblique references to Mark Zuckerberg’s decision not to appear in front of the committee, which collectively represented some 400 million Facebook users. The most overt was the empty chair with his name on it.

But other zingers included Canadian Charlie Angus’ complaint about the “frat boy billionaire” who hadn’t bothered to turn up, as others asked pointed questions they clearly hoped Allan would have to admit only Zuck could answer.

The political theatre was further enhanced by the fact that Allan is a member of the House of Lords.

“You apologised for the decision for Mark Zuckerberg for not appearing,” noted Clive Efford. “How do you think that looks as a member of Parliament?"

To which Allan had to admit: “Not great.” Before adding that he had a role in “supporting his company” as it “tries to grapple” with the many issues it is facing.

And even the firm’s choice of scapegoat came under scrutiny, with O’Hara questioning whether he was the best person “in the entire Facebook empire” to answer these questions.

Allan replied that he had volunteered himself as a sacrificial lamb because he had in-depth knowledge of election issues across the world – and because the committee was obviously not satisfied with CTO Mark Schroepfer’s answers.

Another thread throughout the hearing was the issue of governance and legislation. Allan repeatedly said the firm was keen for regulation, and understood better now than it had before that it was a necessity.

However, when it was noted that the firm was appealing a fine from the UK data protection watchdog, he said that the firm was "pleased about the right kind of regulation" but reiterated Facebook's assertion that the wording of the judgment has wider implications it feels should be challenged.

At the press conference, Canada's Bob Zimmer described Facebook as a "high school platform collecting adult pay cheques", saying that brought with it a certain amount of accountability. He added that it was governments' and politicians' job to regulate, and "keep the bullies at bay". ®




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