Exec Who Had Sealed US Court Docs Seized By UK Parliament Suggests UK Journalist Tipped Off Parliament
from the not-exactly-sure-that's-a-journalist's-role... dept
So, earlier this week we wrote about some highly questionable activities by UK Member of Parliament Damian Collins who used an almost-never-used provision of the law to force a visiting tech exec to hand over documents in a US lawsuit that had been sealed by the court. Those documents were then used to put on a bizarre show trial in which Collins proceeded to drop a bombshell, via the seized documents, suggesting that Facebook had known about Russian abuse of its API. That “bombshell” fizzled into nothing when it came out that the rest of the email thread revealed… that someone jumped the gun, and it wasn’t Russians, it wasn’t 3 billion piece of data, and the API wasn’t being abused. Oops.
This story continues to get more bizarre with the latest redaction failure in one of the sealed documents revealing some of the details that the company, Six4Three — makers of a pervy app to let you scan Facebook for pics of women in bikinis — was claiming proved that Facebook was engaged in anticompetitive practices when it changed the way its API worked.
But, a big mystery has remained in all of this: how the hell did Damian Collins know that the Six4Three exec, Ted Kramer, would be in the UK in that particular hotel. And, as a recent filing in the case suggests, Collins may have been tipped off… by the Guardian reporter, Carole Cadwalladr, who broke the story of the documents being seized (filing first spotted by Buzzfeed).
This is kind of a big deal. And I know that some people don’t care about the ethical questions around journalism if the end results target a company they dislike, but Cadwalladr’s role here certainly raises questions. Cadwalladr has been rightly celebrated for many of her recent stories, including detailed ones about Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. Cadwalladr had apparently been pursuing Kramer as a source for a long time — which is what a good journalist should be doing. But, the latest filing raises questions of how far Cadwalladr would go to get her hands on these documents that she believed were damning to Facebook.
During one such trip in May of this year, Mr. Kramer met with Carole Cadwalladr, a reporter for The Guardian, who was interested in the instant matter…. During that meeting, Mr. Kramer shared with her the public allegations in this case…. She asked him frequently during this meeting if he could share any documents with her…. Each time she requested this information, Mr. Kramer informed her that Facebook?s confidential documents were subject to a Protective Order; and that they could not be released without either an order from this Court or Facebook?s consent.
On August 28, 2018, Mr. Kramer again met with Ms. Cadwalladr, in California…. She informed him that she would like to raise Six4Three?s case with Damian Collins MP, the Chairman of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sports Committee (?DCMS?), a Parliamentary Committee in the United Kingdom investigating Facebook?s management of third party access to user data…. Mr. Kramer informed Ms. Cadwalladr that he was willing to speak with Mr. Collins…..
After this there are a number of paragraphs involving the MP Collins, and some of his staff, emailing Kramer asking for the documents, and Kramer telling them that he could not share them. And then this happened:
On November 17, 2018, Ms. Cadwalladr called Mr. Kramer…. Mr. Kramer informed her that he had a business trip to London, and she suggested they meet for her to receive another update on the case…. Mr. Kramer agreed to meet with her at his hotel and sent her a calendar invitation with the address of the hotel….
On November 19, 2018, Mr. Kramer arrived in London to attend business meetings unrelated to Six4Three….
Upon arriving, Mr. Kramer received an email from DCMS, which attached an Order to Produce Documents (?DCMS Order #1?), demanding his compliance no later than 5pm local time on the next day, November 20, 2018.
Separately, the filing details how Six4Three’s lawyers (and Facebook’s lawyers) did not think that Kramer actually had access to any of the sealed documents, but then they realized that he did have access as the administrator of Six4Three’s shared Dropbox account. While the company’s lawyers removed the documents from that shared folder, they did not realize that thanks to Dropbox’s sync function, copies were already stored on Kramer’s laptop (a lesson for lawyers out there!).
But, the larger question here, is that the filing hints strongly that Cadwalladr tipped off Collins to the fact that Kramer was in London and where his hotel was. She was the only one who knew that information, and she had previously both pushed to get the documents in question and to tell Collins about them. She, also, was the first to report that Collins had seized those documents.
I have no problem with the documents coming out and becoming public. Reporters help publicize otherwise secret documents all the time. However, there are pretty serious ethics questions about a reporter basically engaging the power of the government to force someone to hand over documents. So far, Cadwalladr and the Guardian have done their “no comment” thing about this, but imagine this kind of thing in other contexts and it should be massively concerning. Would it be okay, for example, for a reporter to get the Trump administration to seize documents from, let’s say, Amazon, based on a desire to get those documents out in the public?
Yes, we want a press that speaks truth to power — and that includes both government and large corporate entities. But a journalist conspiring with the government to use questionable means to seize documents goes way over the ethical line.