Facebook Executive Says Cambridge Analytica Data Harvesting "Damaged Public Trust"

UK Houses of Parliament - H 2015
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UK Houses of Parliament - H 2015

Policy vp Richard Allan addressed a landmark fake news and disinformation inquiry in the British parliament in London.

A top Facebook policy executive on Tuesday told a U.K. parliamentary committee looking into fake news and disinformation that the actions of Cambridge Analytica app developers to gain access to data from Facebook users before the 2016 U.S. presidential election had undermined trust in the social media giant.

"I'm not going to disagree with you that we've damaged public trust by some of the actions we've taken," Richard Allan, the social media giant's vp of policy solutions for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, told an "international grand committee on disinformation and fake news" in London that involved parliamentarians from the U.K., Ireland, Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Latvia and Singapore.

The committee, part of an ongoing inquiry by the British House of Commons' Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee into disinformation and fake news, had invited Facebook chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg to appear at the hearing. But Zuckerberg declined to attend after earlier apologizing for the Cambridge Analytica scandal to members of the European Parliament.

Canadian member of parliament Charlie Angus joined the chorus of disappointment over Zuckerberg's absence, which he insisted amounted to "blowing off this committee." The organizers of the event even left the front chair empty, and a "Mark Zuckerberg" nameplate in front of it, to represent the Facebook chief. Last week the committee argued that it "still believes Mark Zuckerberg is the appropriate person to answer important questions about data privacy, safety, security and sharing."

Allan, who is himself a former member of the U.K. parliament, admitted that it was “not great” in terms of appearances that Zuckerberg did not show up to the hearing. Angus at one point told Allan that "while we were playing on our phones and apps, our democratic institutions...seem to have been upended by frat boy billionaires from California."

Cambridge Analytica before the 2016 U.S. election used information from Facebook and others to build psychological profiles of American voters, with, among other things, an app that appeared to be a personality test. The app collected data on tens of millions of people and their Facebook friends, even those who did not download the app themselves.

Allan conceded that Facebook had been undermined by the Cambridge Analytica scandal and other revelations, including the social media giant hiring a Republican opposition firm, Definers Public Affairs, to investigate billionaire George Soros.

British parliamentarian Ian Lucas told Allan that “Facebook has told us a tissue of lies about the way it operates,” alleging that the social media giant knew “throughout” that Cambridge Analytica developers had been harvesting data and only intervened when those efforts were made public.

Allan's appearance was preceded by revelations in The Guardian that the British parliament recently used its legal powers to seize a number of Facebook internal documents that allegedly discuss data and privacy decisions that may have led to the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

The U.K. media report claimed the cache of internal papers includes communications between senior Facebook executives and Zuckerberg. Damian Collins, the chair of the parliamentary committee, told Allan that the seized Facebook documents and emails would not be made public on Tuesday. But he called Allan's attention to one email from a Facebook engineer that in October 2014 reported heavy Russian activity.

"If Russian IP addresses were pulling down a huge amount of information from the platform, was that reported or, as so often, was it kept within the family?" Collins asked. Allan, while not addressing the Facebook engineer claim or Collins' question directly, responded, "Those documents are at best partial and at worst misleading."

Allan also insisted that Facebook had nothing to hide, but rejected the idea that "internal discussions" be made public. He told the parliamentary committee that Facebook was continually attempting to refine the controls used by its users to protect personal data and privacy. "Our intention is you should not be surprised by the way your data is used," he said. "It's not a good outcome if you are."