Facebook gets global grilling over privacy

Facebook gets global grilling over privacy
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Facebook on Tuesday received fresh scrutiny from lawmakers around the globe over its data privacy policies and transparency.

Lawmakers in Britain tore into the company at a hearing and lambasted CEO Mark ZuckerbergMark Elliot ZuckerbergFacebook hosts 'pop up' privacy tutorial in New York City Merkel named Harvard commencement speaker The Hill's Morning Report — Presented by T-Mobile — Congress to act soon to avoid shutdown MORE for failing to personally appear before a parliamentary panel. Later in the day, in the U.S., regulators appearing before a Senate committee were pressured to step up oversight of the company.

At the special joint hearing before a United Kingdom House of Commons panel on digital media, Richard Allan, Facebook’s vice president of policy solutions, took the full brunt of lawmakers’ frustrations with the company as he sat next to an empty chair reserved for Zuckerberg.

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When asked how it looked for Facebook’s CEO to reject multiple requests for his testimony, Allan, also a member of the British House of Lords, responded, “Not great.” Still, he said it was his decision to testify instead of Zuckerberg.

The hearing, which included representatives from eight other countries, came at a time of mounting pressure for Facebook and showed the level of anger the company is facing from political leaders around the world.

“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 globe with respect to Facebook and Facebook’s users,” said Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, a member of the Canadian Parliament.

Over in the U.S., lawmakers on the Senate Commerce Committee focused their ire on the lack of action from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which is investigating Facebook’s handling of the Cambridge Analytica data scandal and whether the company violated a consent decree reached in 2011 over privacy charges.

Commissioners from the FTC faced questions over whether they had been tough enough on the tech giant.

“Cambridge Analytica should never have happened,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). “It would never have happened if the consent order reached by the FTC and Facebook had been consistently and adequately enforced.”

“I have been frustrated that there has been no cost to Facebook for catastrophic failure to protect consumers,” Blumenthal added.

FTC Chairman Joseph Simons, a Republican, said that he couldn’t reveal any details about the investigation.

The two hearings on both sides of the Atlantic highlighted how Facebook is now in a global fight with regulators over its data practices, with Europe in many ways taking the lead on efforts to rein in the company.

The U.K. Information Commissioner’s Office has already fined the company about $636,000 over the Cambridge Analytica debacle, the maximum allowed under British law. Facebook has said it would be appealing the fine, but its troubles with U.K. lawmakers and regulators are far from over.

Over the weekend, the British Parliament took the extraordinary step of seizing a trove of documents from a U.S. app developer locked in a legal battle with Facebook. The documents reportedly contain correspondence from within Facebook, including between Zuckerberg and other executives.

Damian Collins, who heads the British Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, said the panel would not be releasing the documents on Tuesday, but revealed certain details contained in the cache.

According to Collins, a Facebook engineer notified the company in October 2014 that Russian accounts had been pulling 3 billion data points a day from the Facebook platform. Allan didn’t answer questions about whether the company had notified authorities of the warning but promised to follow up.

Simons, the FTC chairman, told Congress later on Tuesday that Facebook had not notified his agency of the incident.

The documents were seized from a company called Six4Three, a controversial developer that had an app to find bikini pictures posted on Facebook by users’ friends. Six4Three sued Facebook after the social network closed off that data pipeline for app developers in 2014.

The documents had been obtained in the discovery phase of Six4Three’s lawsuit against Facebook and were under seal in a California court.

Allan also said the documents shouldn’t be made public and that they don’t provide a full, accurate look inside the company.

“The context that I’m giving is really to say that any information you’ve seen in that cache of emails is at best partial and at worst potentially misleading,” Allan said.

Still, the aggressive step by U.K. lawmakers to seize the documents comes at a difficult time for Facebook.

Political officials’ frustrations with the company are mounting and lawmakers and regulators around the world have shown they are increasingly willing to take on internet giants’ data collection practices.

The European Union already rolled out a new set of privacy regulations earlier this year aimed at increasing transparency over data collection and giving users more control over their information. And regulators have shown no reluctance to levy heavy fines on American tech companies for violations.

That is likely to increase the domestic pressure on Facebook as well.

In the U.S., lawmakers are working toward crafting a new data privacy law after a string of major breaches and privacy violations.

Facebook has worked to stave off the threat of new regulations, insisting that it is reforming its practices and committed to increased transparency.

But lawmakers at both of Tuesday’s hearings made it clear that they intend to take the lead.

“This issue is about Big Tech — and Congress is fed up,” Blumenthal told the five FTC commissioners testifying on Tuesday. “It’s about Big Tech no longer being entitled to say to America, ‘Trust us.’ Big Tech is no longer entitled to that trust, if it ever was, and Big Tech maybe is no longer entitled to be as big as it is.”

In London, Facebook’s Allan told the international panel that the company was willing to work with officials to come up with rules governing the internet sector.

“I don’t think it’s up to Facebook to determine what regulatory structure it should be under,” Collins, the chairman of the panel, shot back.

“It should be up to parliaments to determine that, and that’s why we’re here.”