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International Business Lawmakers grill Facebook over handling of personal data in rare international hearing

A view of the International Grand Committee with representation from nine countries' parliaments and Mark Zuckerberg's non-attendance at the U.K. Parliament in London on Nov. 27, 2018.

HANDOUT/Reuters

Lawmakers from nine countries, including Canada, are escalating a public fight with Facebook, taking aim Tuesday in London at the social-media giant’s handling of personal data.

In a rare international hearing, lawmakers grilled Facebook executive Richard Allan, the company’s vice-president for policy solutions, about misinformation and “fake news” carried on social-media websites, particularly after consultancy Cambridge Analytica obtained the personal data of 87 million Facebook users from a researcher.

Mr. Allan appeared for the hearing after the committee’s chairman, British MP Damian Collins, took the unusual step of obtaining a trove of confidential internal Facebook documents from a visiting U.S. tech executive. The committee wanted the files, which have been sealed by a California judge as part of a lawsuit against Facebook, in the hope they would shed light on Facebook’s privacy policies.

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Mr. Collins, who has not yet made the documents public, asked Mr. Allan about one item he said was of considerable public interest that suggests Facebook was alerted to possible Russian hacking years before it became a major issue. He said the document indicates a Facebook engineer notified his superiors in October, 2014, that “entities with Russian IP addresses” were pulling more than three billion data points a day from Facebook.

Mr. Allan said that information was “at best partial and at worst potentially misleading.”

The lawmakers – which included representatives from Canada, Ireland, Brazil, Argentina, Singapore, Belgium, France, Latvia and Britain – were also critical of Facebook founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg for failing to show up to answer questions in Britain’s parliament, and made a point of leaving an empty seat with Mr. Zuckerberg’s name tag.

Canada’s representatives included Bob Zimmer, the chair of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics (ETHI), and his co-chairs Charlie Angus and Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith. Canada is continuing to investigate data breaches of personal information of more than 600,000 Canadian users.

“We don’t have Mr. Zuckerberg here today, which is incredibly unfortunate and I think speaks to a failure to account for the loss of trust certainly across the world,” Mr. Erskine-Smith said.

While Facebook Canada officials were grilled by parliamentarians in April, Mr. Zuckerberg has twice refused requests to appear.

Mr. Allan said he volunteered to attend because Mr. Zuckerberg had already appeared before other committees this year, including in Washington and, briefly, Brussels. Mr. Zuckerberg had repeatedly ignored requests to appear at the committee.

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In front of the committee, Mr. Allan agreed with Mr. Erskine-Smith when he said it appeared Facebook has been negligent in not acting sooner to remove disinformation from its pages.

In response to Canadian New Democrat MP Mr. Angus, who said the social-media giant has “lost the trust of the international community to self-police,” Mr. Allan said, “I’m not going to disagree with you that we’ve damaged public trust with some of the actions we’ve taken.”

“We’ve never seen anything quite like Facebook, where, while we were playing on our phones and apps, our democratic institutions seem to have been upended by frat-boy billionaires from California,” Mr. Angus said.

In a statement regarding the documents, which Mr. Collins said he needed more time to look over, Facebook said in a statement that the “the engineers who had flagged these initial concerns subsequently looked into this further and found no evidence of specific Russian activity.”

The committee obtained the files from Theodore Kramer, CEO of app maker Six4Three, after they discovered he was in London, threatening him with prison if he refused. Mr. Kramer’s company acquired the files as part of a legal discovery process in a lawsuit against Facebook.

British select committees are used to investigate major issues and have the powerful – from CEOs to government officials – explain their decisions in a public forum. They don’t have the power to make laws, but the government takes their recommendations into account when formulating new policies.

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The last time members from other parliaments have sat in on a British meeting was to discuss Indian constitution reform in 1933.

With files from the Associated Press, The New York Times News Service and Reuters

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