As It Happens

U.K. government seizes Facebook documents from a businessman's hotel room

The U.K. Parliament now has access to a cache of internal Facebook documents the company has been fighting to keep under wraps — and they could soon become a matter of public record.

British MP says he could make the secret information public

Documents obtained by the U.K. Parliament allegedly contain correspondence between Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and other top company executives. (Leah Millis/Reuters)
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Transcript

The U.K. Parliament now has access to a cache of internal Facebook documents the company has been fighting to keep under wraps — and they could soon become a matter of public record.

It's not clear what the documents contain, but they were seized from a London hotel by the U.K. Parliament's sergeant-at-arms and allegedly paint an unflattering picture of how the company manages user privacy and deals with competitors. 

British MP Damian Collins got the documents from Ted Kramer, the owner of Six4Three, which is suing Facebook over the demise of its short-lived app Pikini, which let people find pictures of their friends wearing bikinis.

A California judge has ruled the documents must remained sealed — but parliamentary privilege means Collins could release them for the world to see.

Donie O'Sullivan, who has been covering the story for CNN, broke it down for As It Happens guest host Peter Armstrong. Here is part of their conversation. 

How did the British Parliament get possession of these documents?

Somehow, British parliamentarian Damian Collins, who leads a committee looking into disinformation and online fake news, found out that [Kramer] was in town.

And long story short, he sent the sergeant-at-arms​ to the hotel and eventually compelled him to hand over the documents.

I didn't even know that the sergeant of arms would have the legal authority to demand somebody hand over these kinds of documents. 

We were told that it's a very rarely used mechanism. 

[Kramer has] been in a years long, about four year's litigation, against Facebook. He basically sued Facebook when he said that Facebook changed some of their policies a few years ago and that it killed his business.

During this lawsuit, as part of the discovery process, Kramer and Six4Three got access to these internal Facebook records.

If a British MP makes the Facebook documents public, it could be another scandal for the social media giant. (Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images)

We don't really know what's in these documents. Do we have a sense of how damaging they could be?

In the lawsuit that Mr. Kramer brought against Facebook, they use these documents to make a whole litany of allegations against the company. We can actually see in court filings the claims that Kramer is making, but not the documents to back up those claims.

What he's claiming is basically that Facebook doesn't really give a damn about users' privacy, that Mr. Zuckerberg was sort of pretty cut-throat in how he went about coming up with schemes to sort of squash competitors and potential rivals to Facebook.

Facebook is fighting very hard for the documents that have been obtained through discovery freedom not to be made public.

So you can imagine that there might be some details in those documents, maybe emails from Mark Zuckerberg, that do not cast the billionaire in a very positive light. 

Has Facebook responded to the seizure and said anything publicly since?

Facebook over the weekend wrote a letter to Mr. Collins and they said: You know, we understand you have parliamentary privilege. We understand that some of these documents may be of interest to you, but we'd ask that you wait to see what the judge in California says.

Mr. Collins, the MP, did not take that letter very well. He wrote back within a few hours ... on Sunday, basically saying: Look, I am a member of Parliament. We are a sovereign. I have these powers in U.K. and basically I can do whatever I want with these documents.

Tuesday is when Mr. Collins will be appearing at a committee along with some Canadian lawmakers, actually, here in London.

They will be questioning a Facebook executive. 

So you could imagine that it's possible — and I think Facebook is quite fearful — that Collins would use some of the information that he has seen through these emails and documents in the questions he poses to the Facebook executive.

Worst case scenario for Facebook is that Collins exercises parliamentary privilege entirely and posts all of the documents into the record for all of us to see.

If he was to just post these up on the internet, what would the impact of that be?

These could be internal emails and documents that, you know, show how the sausage is made.

It will be interesting to see the public Facebook versus the private Facebook.

These emails, these documents, could give us an insight into, well, what's really going on with the company. Does it match all the public statements they're saying about all the steps that they have been taking over the past few years to protect user privacy, to really put their users first? 

Or, you know, will they show a different story?

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Produced by Kate Swoger. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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