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To Obtain Documents About Facebook Data-Sharing, UK Gov't Seizes And Detains A US Executive Working For A Different Company

from the Parliamentary-street-gang dept

Something strange and disturbing happened in the UK this weekend. That it targeted pariah du jour Facebook doesn’t make it any less bizarre or worrisome.

The short story is this: peeved at being blown off repeatedly by Mark Zuckerberg and other Facebook representatives, members of Parliament shook down an American third party for documents possibly related to the Cambridge Analytica scandal. The long story — broken by Carole Cadwalladr of The Guardian — fills in the details.

But first a little background: Six4Three, developers of a scuzzy app that scanned profiles for bikini photos, is currently suing Facebook for yanking its API access. The lawsuit has traveled from the federal court system to a California state court, where Six4Three is hoping for a ruling declaring Facebook’s actions to be a violation of various state-level competitive business laws.

During the course of this suit — which was filed in January 2017 — Six4Three has obtained internal Facebook documents through discovery. These documents may contain info related to Facebook’s data-sharing and data-selling practices, which could possibly include its deals with Cambridge Analytica.

Somehow, members of Parliament found out one of Six4Three’s lawyers execs was in London. So, this happened:

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.

Let’s break this down: the UK government wants answers from Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook. Since Facebook hasn’t been compliant, the UK government feels justified in taking documents obtained through discovery in a US lawsuit from an American lawyer currently suing Facebook… just because he happened to roam into its jurisdiction.

This is insane.

As an added twist, the documents the lawyer was forced to turn over are currently under seal. That means no one in the US other than the litigants and the judge have access to them. At least that was the case until Parliament’s bizarre, heavy-handed move.

Facebook has responded with some fluff about Six4Three’s creepy app (not really relevant) and a reminder that the documents seized from its opponent’s lawyer are, at this point, privileged information. MP Collins has responded with a shrug, reminding Facebook’s legal rep that the UK is not California so who cares what a local court has to say about who can see what documents.

It’s unlikely the California court will find Six4Three’s lawyer in contempt for being pretty much arrested and threatened with indefinite imprisonment if he didn’t hand over documents it has ordered sealed. Facebook has asked that no members of Parliament view the documents until it has heard back from the California court. This has been greeted with a different kind of contempt:

If you can’t read/see the tweet, it’s from MP Ian Lucas and reads:

Facebook said: “The materials obtained by the 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.” Too late.

Parliament may now have some of the answers Facebook has refused to provide. But was it worth it? The UK government acted more like an authoritarian dictatorship than a free country with this move. It detained a lawyer who didn’t even work for Facebook and threatened him with jail time if he didn’t turn over documents a judge in his home country had ordered sealed. The next few days should see some interesting iterations of the “ends justifies the means” pontificating from every Parliament member supportive of this damaging move.

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Companies: facebook, six4three

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Comments on “To Obtain Documents About Facebook Data-Sharing, UK Gov't Seizes And Detains A US Executive Working For A Different Company”

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93 Comments
That One Guy (profile) says:

"And we should trust you THIS time why again?"

In their short-sighted eagerness to get data that they apparently felt was ‘owed’ to them it seems the UK parliament might have just shot it’s foot with regards to future cases involving the company.

By going after a third party because they were too toothless and/or gutless to challenge Facebook directly, followed by blatantly flaunting the fact that the documents in question are under seal in the US Facebook can argue that handing over any information to parliament risks having it spread elsewhere, as parliament clearly can’t be trusted to show restraint or consider any legal or privacy issues involved in said information.

Not only do they come out looking all sorts of thuggish, but if they thought Facebook was stonewalling/ignoring them before they pulled this stunt I suspect they are not going to be happy with the stance Facebook is likely to take after it.

MathFox says:

Re: "And we should trust you THIS time why again?"

You could try to look at it from a UK perspective: There is this US corporation which is known to infringe UK privacy laws on a large scale. The company is unwilling to provide documents that make the scale of their data sharing (and the quality of their data protection) clear.
However, you just knew that a copy of these documents is in the possession of a third party, which happens to be on a visit in your capital. A nice opportunity to obtain those documents and investigate further.

I see no fundamental difference with seizing documents related to the inner workings of a drug cartel.

Call me Al says:

Re: Re: "And we should trust you THIS time why again?"

I was thinking the same.

I think it shows desperation on the part of the UK parliament that they have resorted to this but the very fact they have shows how much they’ve struggled to get details from Facebook.

I just hope that this doesn’t become a common practice.

Michael (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: "And we should trust you THIS time why again?"

“but the very fact they have shows how much they’ve struggled to get details from Facebook”

What?! The “fact” that they have likely gone completely around their own laws and US law shows something? That’s a little like saying “the fact that I was speeding shows how much I have struggled with inappropriate speed limits” or “the fact that I shot him shows how much I was in fear of my life”.

Their actions do not provide any sort of evidence of anything except they are unwilling to wait for due process.

stderric (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 "And we should trust you THIS time why again?"

expect that to come back and bite them when they’re seeking a trade deal with the USA

Reading through the rather, er, high spirited discussions about this issue in the comments, it does seem like the pragmatic effects it may have (e.g. international trade, travel, business) are being given rather short shrift.

stderric (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:5 "And we should trust you THIS time why again?"

And of course, I forgot to mention the (admittedly unlikely, slippery-slope) potential effect that keeps nagging at me anyway: if a US court issues an order that documents involved in a case are to be kept private, does that order now include a ban on international travel for all involved parties?

MathFox says:

Re: Re: Re:2 "And we should trust you THIS time why again?"

The “fact” that they have likely gone completely around their own laws

Please cite chapter and verse of the law they went around.

The way I see it is that Parliament used a law that was originally intended to be used against non-cooperating nobility against a non-cooperating US company.

Dave P. says:

Re: Re: Re:4 "And we should trust you THIS time why again?"

Guillotine? My goodness, sir……you definitely have the wrong country! A devilish mechanical Froggie device, if I’m not very much mistaken. We here in the UK tend to go for hanging, drawing and quartering – a great deterrent, or, failing that, simplistic removal of the head by a well-placed axe or sword. No mechanical parts to go wrong, y’see. See more gruesome details here: http://www.capitalpunishmentuk.org/behead.html

The Wanderer (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 "And we should trust you THIS time why again?"

It does, actually.

A more general statement of the principle would be “the fact that I broke the law to do X shows how hard it is to do X without breaking the law”.

Whether or not it should be hard to do X without breaking the law, or even hard to do X at all, is a completely separate question.

Your “speeding” analogy doesn’t include an indication of what goal the speeding was intended to accomplish, so it doesn’t map very well to the case at hand.

The “shot him” analogy could fit, in a form more like “the fact that I shot him in order to survive is an indication of how hard I found it to survive without shooting him” – although that example itself does show the limits of the principle, since people can and do indeed go to the extreme solution without even trying the less extreme ones first. (And that might well apply to the case at hand.)

I.T. Guy says:

Re: Re: "And we should trust you THIS time why again?"

So you approve of thugs throwing a hood over your face and kidnapping you until you turn over X?
That is what happened here.

“There is this US corporation which is known to infringe UK privacy laws on a large scale. “

Then just block Facebook in the country. Right?

Gorshkov (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: "And we should trust you THIS time why again?"

So you approve of thugs throwing a hood over your face and kidnapping you until you turn over X?
That is what happened here.

How is that any different from what you lot do when you jail somebody forever for contempt of court until they are willing to turn over the password for their phone when they haven’t been convicted for anything, regardless of the severity of their alleged crime?

bob says:

Re: Re: Re: "And we should trust you THIS time why again?"

Blocking FB is an option but I bet this move was met with less outcry from the UK population.

I don’t like that it happened but I recognize that it was lawful in that country for the government to do this.

I wonder what the cost to the UK will be though. Are less people going to visit, are other countries going to condemn the UK or will no one in positions of power really care?

My guess is this time around nothing will happen.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: "And we should trust you THIS time why again?"

I see no fundamental difference with seizing documents related to the inner workings of a drug cartel.

What does this say about your views on the First, Fourth, and Fifth amendments in general? “But … the drugs!” is an excuse, like any other.

You don’t get to break rights at will, without ending up with broken rights. For everyone.

MathFox says:

Re: Re: Re: "And we should trust you THIS time why again?"

What does this say about your views on the First, Fourth, and Fifth amendments in general? "But … the drugs!" is an excuse, like any other.
They are parts of the US constitution and as such do not apply as witten to the UK. My opinion in general is that although it would be nice to have such strong language in "my" constitution, the way the underlying principles are applied over here is likely better than in the US. (See all the articles on Techdirt on police abuse of power.)

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 "And we should trust you THIS time why again?"

Sorry to inform you of this, UK bro, but while your police may use deadly force less often than ours, that’s about the only way in which they’re better. You people have downright scary levels of Orwellian thought and speech policing.

If I had to choose between being subject to UK law and enforcement of such vs having my dick shoved in a killer bee hive, I’d have to ponder pretty hard which would be worse. And I’m allergic to bees.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Cutting off your nose to spite your neighbor

I really shouldn’t have to explain this again

Just because you hate the company does not mean you should be cheering on actions like this to ‘get them’, because if it’s acceptable to do it to someone you hate, if it should happen to someone you like down the line you’ll have no grounds to object unless you want to expose some great hypocrisy, and they’ll have less grounds to fight back because ‘we didn’t get any objections when we did it to them, we’re just doing the same thing to you now.’

Bertram B Basset says:

Re: Re: Re:2 It helps if you get the small details right

How would Parliament know he had them? Dude, this is a man with a massive grudge against FB as an entity and Zuckerberg as an individual. Maybe he was grumpy enough to let gov.uk know in advance that he’d be in London on a certain date and carrying a physical copy of the docs. That would give him a perfect get out of jail free card for any US court problems and a perfect way to get his revenge. Hell hath no fury like a geek scorned.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: It helps if you get the small details right

By the way, did you not find it strange that the founder (not the lawyer) of the company was visiting London and carrying these documents with him? I guess not.

Till now, as long as you didn’t carry the documents across the border, you were mostly considered safe when working in a non-dictatorship. Some lawyers and businesspeople would wipe laptops before crossing the border, then restore over the internet, work on some stuff, upload it, wipe again and go home.

In the future it may indeed be considered strange to carry them. To start, US courts might forbid sealed documents from being taken/accessed outside the US—or even forbid anyone outside the US having the capability to access them. I.e., if a lawyer’s going to travel, their network access rights to those documents would be restricted so they couldn’t access them even if forced.

BentFranklin (profile) says:

From The Guardian: “Six4Three alleges the cache shows Facebook was not only aware of the implications of its privacy policy, but actively exploited them, intentionally creating and effectively flagging up the loophole that Cambridge Analytica used to collect data.”

There’s your tech dirt, and the reason I posted the link to the insider chat.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Re:

From The Guardian: "Six4Three alleges the cache shows Facebook was not only aware of the implications of its privacy policy, but actively exploited them, intentionally creating and effectively flagging up the loophole that Cambridge Analytica used to collect data."

I’ve read this a bunch and it kinda sounds like… a reporter and politicians not understanding Facebook’s API.

Thad (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

An API is for programmers. Why should any user of Facebook be expected to know or understand it?

If that user happens to be a journalist writing an article about the Facebook API, then they should learn enough about the API to describe it accurately.

A reporter describing an API need not be a programmer, any more than a reporter describing a black hole need be an astrophysicist, a reporter describing a criminal trial need be a lawyer, or a reporter on city planning need be a civil engineer. If you’re reporting on those subjects, you don’t need to be an expert on them. But you should know enough to accurately describe them in terms that your audience can understand.

Sam O All-Ways says:

You got to this remarkably fast.

Nothing gets Techdirt alarmed like emerging Truth of what globalist corporations are doing out of sight.

The minion gets into a snit based on A) false assertion that corporations have rights, but they don’t, and B) that Parliament / gov’t don’t have authority (from "natural" persons) to investigate the merely fictional corporations, but they DO, and should be used more often like this.

Anonymous Coward says:

How certain were they that he could comply?

My first thought on reading this was the dangerous similarity to "We have this drive that appears to be encrypted. We believe you know the password to decrypt it. You cannot convince us of your ignorance. Tell us the password or be convicted."

Even ignoring all the serious legal issues with how they did this, it sets a terrible precedent for creating unwinnable scenarios. What would have happened if he didn’t have the ability to readily provide the documents they demanded? For example, if the only copy was stored in a wall safe in his home in the U.S., would they take the position that he needs to order someone to go break into his home and open the safe to retrieve the documents? What if the court had ordered the documents be made available to him, but the court clerk had not yet done so, so he had not read the documents yet and had no copies which he could provide? Would they argue that it’s his duty to call up the court clerk, explain that the sealed documents need to be sent to him unsealed so that he can be released from detention, and then hope the court clerk went along with such a bizarre claim?

Kitsune 106 says:

Sooooo

If they feel justified in this. And companies will comply ,

How will this work with US government mandated back doors? Especially if in all computers? And what happens if laws are passed that say you have to give the passwords or fined?

Where would WTO or courts come down? After all, having access to back doors would be security issue for all governments….

Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Double or triple standards

I am wondering what they have done to make Facebook comply, without these shenanigans? I suspect that Facebook has equipment/personnel in the UK, why haven’t those things been confiscated or people detained? Or if they have, why wasn’t that sufficient?

Then there is the whole concept that the Cambridge Analitica is about privacy, and the method to enhance their position is to abuse someone else’s privacy?

Finally, this was an act of Parliament, apparently, and not the UK government as a whole, or the prosecutorial portion of the UK government. Is there some sort of plausible deniability going on here?

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Double or triple standards

I suspect it’s as simple as ‘Because Facebook can fight back’. If they did this to one of Facebook’s lawyers you can be damn sure that they would be facing some hefty legal action backed by a company with more than enough resources to make them regret it.

A lawyer from a much smaller company on the other hand…

Ben L (profile) says:

The saddest thing

The saddest thing about this story is that the documents are probably over-hyped. As Casey Newton [noted on Twitter](https://twitter.com/CaseyNewton/status/1066470150516310016): “So the cache of secret documents reveals that … Facebook had a developer API … and promoted it … to developers???”

That Facebook had a broad and overreaching API was [known in 2011](https://techcrunch.com/2018/03/24/facebook-was-warned-about-app-permissions-in-2011/). Only developers really cared when they started shuttering it in 2014 (hence the Six4Three lawsuit), until Cambridge Analytica gave politicians political cover to investigate it.

I suppose the British parliament probably has broad authority to get these documents (perhaps they are explosive). However, it’s troubling that they felt they needed to extort a Six4Three lawyer to get them.

James T (profile) says:

Re: The saddest thing

Yeah exactly I am sure overhyped. Not to mention FB has sent Sheryl to answer questions before on this exact issue. They just didn’t supply Mark, as Sheryl is the international leader of the company.

Getting the documents is dicey at best I mean the CEO may have wanted to leak them as people are suggesting because really he had an out. I doubt he carried them in his hands, and as sealed documents I would believe they were only shared with his Lawyers. His lawyers are under court orders to prevent their release. A simple my lawyer wont give it to me should end the UK’s push for it. I mean if he doesn’t have them he can’t give them…

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: ... from the wrong party.

Did you read the article? The problem wasn’t that they demanded documents. The problem was that they demanded documents from a third party because they were too gutless to demand them from Facebook, so instead they went after someone else who was carrying what they wanted and forced them to provide said documents or face penalties for refusing.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: ... from the wrong party.

Have you considered that he may have been working for the UK in this case? As in, paid to courier the documents to them? Why else would a non-practicing lawyer be carrying documents for a case he isn’t working on a trip outside of his home country? And how did the UK know he was carrying those documents he should not have been carrying?

I’m not big on tinfoil hats but this is all a little too convenient.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: ... from the wrong party.

After the idea was raised in a comment above I do consider it a possibility, yes, though as someone else noted were such a case to be true it wouldn’t necessarily involve or even require a payment, as he has plenty of reasons to want to stick it to FB and this would make for a perfect and easy way to do that.

Barring further evidence to support the idea though it remains nothing more than a possibility.

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