Monday, November 26, 2018

Democracy vs Facebook

The UK Parliament has been investigating Facebook for some time over the Brexit referendum and Cambridge Analytica scandal. But so far Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has refused to appear before them and answer questions. So now they've upped the ante and seized Facebook documents from a visiting third-party CEO who had obtained them as part of a lawsuit in the US:

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 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 UK parliament's contempt powers are ill-defined, and haven't really been exercised for some time, but in theory they could have imprisoned him until the next election (though the interaction between that, the Bill of Rights Act 1689 and the UK Human Rights Act and ECHR would have been fascinating). The documents themselves are subject to a non-disclosure order in the USA, of which the UK parliament has just forced a breach. Facebook will probably threaten to sue over that, but they won't get anywhere in a UK court because claims against parliament are simply non-justiciable. If they punish Six4Three's CEO for providing them, then that would seem to be a contempt of parliament which would expose them to sanctions in the UK. And now the committee has the documents, they can publicise them however they like under full cover of parliamentary privilege. But most interestingly, the UK parliament is subject to its Freedom of Information Act, so the documents could be requested (though probably not until the inquiry is over).

The fallout from this is going to be fascinating. And it will be interesting to see if any other legislatures take the hint that global corporations are globally vulnerable and take similar action to advance their own inquiries into how Facebook is used to undermine democracy and incite murder and genocide.