Internal Documents Facebook Fought to Keep Private Obtained by UK Parliament

Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg delivers his speech during the VivaTech (Viva Technology) trade fair in Paris, on May 24, 2018. (Credit: GERARD JULIEN/AFP/Getty Images)

The British Parliament has obtained a set of internal Facebook documents the social media giant has fought for months to stop from being made public, according to Facebook and a lawyer involved in a suit against the company.

The cache of documents, some of which may include correspondences between Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and company executives, stem from a lawsuit in California that outlines a litany of allegations against Facebook, including claims about the company’s alleged disregard for user privacy and the claim that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg devised a scheme that forced Facebook’s rivals, or potential rivals, out of business.

“We allege that Facebook itself is the biggest violator of data misuse in the history of the software industry,” Ted Kramer, the owner of Six4Three, the company suing Facebook, told CNN in an interview this summer.

Kramer told CNN he wants the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and attorneys general across the United States to investigate the allegations Six4Three is making.

A Facebook spokesperson told CNN on Saturday that Six4Three’s lawsuit is without merit.

The internal documents were obtained by Kramer’s lawyers through discovery, a legal process whereby one party to a lawsuit can obtain evidence from the other.

The San Mateo Superior Court in California ordered the documents remain under seal, meaning they should not be made public by Six4Three.

However, last Monday, Member of Parliament Damian Collins, the head of the British parliamentary committee that has been looking into Facebook, wrote to Six4Three’s Ted Kramer, asking for the documents.

Kramer was apparently in the United Kingdom for work and the letter was sent to the hotel in central London where Kramer was staying, court documents reviewed by CNN show.

Facebook contacted the court in California when it learned of Collins’ request. Tuesday, the judge in the case ordered that no unredacted copies of the relevant sealed documents should be released until further notice from the court, and that “failure to comply will be considered an act of contempt.”

Friday night, one of Six4Three’s lawyers, Stuart Gross, confirmed to CNN that the British committee had obtained materials from Six4Three that are under seal. It is not clear when the documents were obtained. Gross said that Six4Three had asked the committee to “refrain from reviewing them and to return them to counsel or to Facebook.”

A Facebook spokesperson said in a statement that the materials obtained by the committee are subject to a protective court order restricting their disclosure.

Saturday night, The Observer newspaper in London reported that the documents had been seized after Kramer was escorted to Parliament after a sergeant-at-arms appeared at Kramer’s hotel. Kramer was told he risked fines and possible imprisonment if he didn’t hand over the documents. CNN has not independently confirmed this.

The legal fight

Six4Three, which has been engaged in a yearslong legal battle with Facebook, were the makers of “Pinkini,” a controversial app that allowed users to find pictures of their friends wearing bikinis.

The app did not breach Facebook’s terms and conditions when it was released in 2013. But in 2015 Facebook changed its policies about how it shared information about its users with third-party app developers such as those behind Pinkini.

Prior to the change, Pinkini and other app developers were able to access information not only about their users, but also about their users’ Facebook friends, including users’ friends’ photos.

When Facebook restricted access to friend data, it destroyed Pinkini’s businesses, Six4Three alleges.

While a crude app that searched out bikini photos, and which shut down years ago, might not be noteworthy on its own, the fact that Six4Three has access to internal Facebook documents — currently under court seal — is.

The little-known case attracted the interest of major news organizations, including CNN and The Guardian newspaper, that filed a joint court motion in June for the documents to be made public.

The motion referenced the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which also deals with Facebook’s prior practice of allowing apps access to users’ friends’ data, and argues: “(G)iven the furor quite rightly surrounding the Cambridge Analytica controversy, the public has an immediate and overwhelming interest in understanding the facts surrounding Facebook’s data practices over time.”

“The Guardian and CNN express no opinion on the merits of the dispute,” the motion added.

That motion, and other motions to unseal all of the documents, were rejected by the court in October.

Pushback from Facebook

Facebook has consistently pushed back on Six4Three’s claims.

“Before their case was picked up by CNN, this app’s biggest accomplishment was being named ‘one of the creepiest apps ever,” Natalie Naugle, Facebook’s associate general counsel, litigation, said in a statement provided to CNN in October. “Its creators marketed the app as a way to look at pictures of women in bikinis. We made changes to the platform in 2014 and we do not regret that this restricted Six4Three’s access to information.”

Also in October, a Facebook spokesperson provided CNN with a link to a 2013 promotional video for Pinkini, saying the company was doing so “so your viewers have a clear picture of what Six4Three is trying to defend.” Facebook also said that the Pinkini app had fewer than 4,500 downloads.

Naugle, Facebook’s lawyer, told CNN in a statement last month that the company stood by its decision to ask for the documents to be kept under seal. “Motions to seal are entirely commonplace in litigation and are typically granted as a matter of course to respect the confidentiality of internal discussions and the trade secrets their disclosure may reveal. We believe Six4Three’s claims are entirely meritless,” she said.

Speaking to CNN over the summer, Kramer dismissed Facebook’s portrayal of Pinkini as creepy. He said the app was a way for his company to gather a user base and develop its “sophisticated visual pattern recognition algorithms.” The ultimate goal of the company, he said, was to “develop a business that you could look at photos and be able to purchase clothing from looking at an image.”

Kramer told CNN that he views his fight with Facebook as a “David versus Goliath” battle.

“I think it’s really important to understand that they have fought tooth and nail to prevent this evidence from becoming public which we believe the world should see. We believe everyone should see this evidence because they have the right to know the truth,” he said.