There is something weird going on here. The UK Guardian reports that Parliament used extraordinary, rarely-invoked measures to effect the seizure of documents, from a U.S. company, and that what it’s all about is indignation over the U.S. allegations about Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, and the 2016 election.
In other words, this isn’t about a specific, UK-relevant beef Parliament has with Facebook. Guardian‘s description of events (emphasis added):
Parliament has used its legal powers to seize internal Facebook documents in an extraordinary attempt to hold the US social media giant to account after chief executive Mark Zuckerberg repeatedly refused to answer MPs’ questions.
The cache of documents is alleged to contain significant revelations about Facebook decisions on data and privacy controls that led to the Cambridge Analytica scandal. It is claimed they include confidential emails between senior executives, and correspondence with Zuckerberg.
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 [sic] 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.
The Guardian‘s reference to reasons for this unusual seizure is cagey and uninformative.
The seizure is the latest move in a bitter battle between the British parliament and the social media giant. The struggle to hold Facebook to account has raised concerns about limits of British authority over international companies that now play a key role in the democratic process.
Facebook, which has lost more than $100bn in value since March when the Observer exposed how Cambridge Analytica had harvested data from 87m US users, faces another potential PR crisis. It is believed the documents will lay out how user data decisions were made in the years before the Cambridge Analytica breach, including what Zuckerberg and senior executives knew.
U.S. users. The targeting of U.S. users during the 2016 election has been the focus of the UK’s probe into Cambridge Analytica and Facebook all along. The Guardian article indicates that’s still the focus.
“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.”
Cambridge Analytica is a British consulting firm, of course. But when Parliament is hauling Americans in under guard, to be threatened over documents whose relevance is about another company, it seems like taking public-spiritedness to an obsessive level. There’s got to be some reason why the British parliament is so passionate about this, and seemingly doing us (well, really, Mueller and his supporters) this “favor.”
There is yet another odd twist in the mix. The files in question are under a protective order from a California court because of legal proceedings already underway in the United States.
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.
Facebook said: “The materials obtained by the [parliamentary] 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. We have no further comment.”
Parliament seized them anyway. Guardian goes on to say that several other nations are going to have access to the files seized by Parliament.
UK, Canada, Ireland, Argentina, Brazil, Singapore and Latvia will all have representatives joining what looks set to be a high-stakes encounter between Facebook and politicians.
Apparently, these are the members of the “international grand committee” being formed to grill Facebook on “disinformation and election meddling.” The zeal for the work of this committee, at least in Britain’s Parliament, seems to know no bounds. We’re to understand that what it’s all about is the “Russian meddling in the U.S. 2016 election” theme — which makes Parliament’s “extraordinary measures” excursion into the very tangential Cambridge Analytica/data-privacy-for-87-million-Americans business just a touch puzzling. Indignation about data privacy isn’t obviously a sub-theme integral to the “Russians flogged fake news on social media” super-theme about election meddling.
Equally puzzling is the international grand committee, which seems to have popped out of nowhere in the last several weeks, preparing to strike a blow for, well, somebody in reaction to “Russian meddling and Facebook!” in the U.S. election — but lacking any participation by the United States, and otherwise comprising a participants list with no obvious logic to it.
Facebook seems to smell an Inquisition in the making, and has been refusing to appear before this committee. My interest is in the timing, and what this is really about. It’s actually quite a big deal for Parliament — as opposed to law enforcement in a court-supervised proceeding — to detain a U.S. citizen and demand that he hand over proprietary files. It seems that this would have had to be pre-greased at some level between the UK and the U.S. What’s going on here?
I’m reminded of a post from August, when Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) literally proposed to have the U.S. federal government take over the administration of social media, using “Russian meddling and Facebook!” as his pretext. We keep cycling back to “Russian meddling” to excuse exotic exercises of government power, and weird, out-of-the-box proposals to expand government overreach.
At the same time, in a curious coincidence, Robert Mueller is apparently intensifying his probe into Briton Nigel Farage, and a theme is being floated that the Brits need “their own Mueller” to investigate whatever grievances they think they have with “Russian meddling.” As I said last week, Mueller seems to be doing a fine job investigating Farage for them. There’s more than a whiff, in this Parliament-seizing-files episode, of the Brits investigating Facebook for Mueller — or at least for someone beyond the citizens of the UK who give Parliament its charter.
The allusion to “data privacy” looks like a fig leaf for seizing files from Six4Three, if the purpose of the seizure is to support the work of this hastily assembled grand international committee. The committee’s target is “disinformation and election meddling.” This whole thing looks like a lot of smoke and mirrors.
Facebook is doing inexcusable things to conservative users, but I recommend not participating in any two-minute hates urged against Facebook by the mainstream media, or by any politicians flogging the “Russian meddling” theme. There’s a lot that’s unstated and unrevealed going on here, and we are wisest not to become unwary foot soldiers in someone’s shadow war.