Tech Tent: Missing Mark Zuckerberg

Empty chair Image copyright Reuters
Image caption An empty chair was prepared for Mark Zuckerberg

For three hours this week Richard Allan was in one of the world's most uncomfortable seats.

In a Westminster committee room, parliamentarians from nine countries battered Facebook's European policy chief, mostly over one issue: why was he there instead of Mark Zuckerberg?

On this week's Tech Tent podcast, we ask whether - beyond the theatre - we learned anything new from the inquisition of Richard Allan.

He was on the back foot as the politicians accused his company of everything from playing fast and loose with user data, to aiding repression in Myanmar and threatening democracy around the world.

The best zinger came from a Canadian MP who said: "Our democratic institutions have been upended by fratboy billionaires from California, and Mr Zuckerberg's decision not to appear speaks volumes".

But what everyone was waiting to find out about was those internal Facebook documents seized from a businessman who is in a legal dispute with the social media giant.

In the event, the committee chairman Damian Collins opted not to publish the documents immediately.

But he did pluck one email from the pile. It was from a Facebook engineer in 2014 apparently sounding the alarm about a high level of Russian activity, with three billion data points a day being accessed from Russian IP addresses.

Richard Allan did not really have an answer when asked what action had been taken about this warning. Later, Facebook published the whole email chain which appeared to show that the engineers who had raised the issue subsequently concluded that there was not actually clear evidence of Russian activity.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Facebook's European policy boss Richard Allan faced stiff questioning from MPs

So Facebook emerged from that clash relatively unscathed. But late in the day came evidence from another witness who suggested that on wider issues about access to user data, Richard Allan had been less than frank with the committee.

Easy access

Ashkan Soltani, a former technology advisor to the US Federal Trade Commission said that version one of the Facebook platform - before it was changed in 2014 - did allow developers unfiltered access to users' data, contradicting the evidence given earlier.

He also said that, in the 2011 settlement of its privacy case against Facebook, the FTC alleged that if a user had an app installed it had access to nearly all the users' profile information, even if set to private.

The following day Damian Collins was very critical of the performance of Richard Allan, telling a conference: "I don't think he was straight with the committee. Was it disingenuous? Yes. Was it misleading? Yes. Did he probably hold back relevant and important information? Almost certainly yes."

Facebook disputes that - and disagrees with the version of events laid out by Mr Soltani. The social media giant is also aggrieved at what it sees as the selective and biased use of documents obtained from a litigant, the app developer Six4Three, determined to paint it in the worst possible light.

This is a battle that is only going to get more bitter. In the coming days, Damian Collins plans to release a redacted version of the documents which may shed light on internal discussions at Facebook about how far to go in allowing developers access to users' data.

Prepare for more fireworks….