An online ad for a Facebook app that debuted in 2014 showed a man in a bar pointing his phone at women to zap away their clothes, leaving them wearing only bikinis.
The Pikini app for locating photos of users in swimsuits didn’t last long because Facebook restricted developer access to friends’ data. But now a bitter legal dispute between the app maker and the social networking giant is threatening to strip bare Facebook’s often-criticised practices for sharing what users post on the network.
Sensitive internal Facebook records that were supposed to remain sealed in a California court case were leaked to a UK parliamentary committee by one of the founders of the app company. With the committee scheduled to question a Facebook executive about the documents, Facebook moved on Monday to have the company, Six4Three, held in contempt by a judge in state court in Redwood City, California.
“These are extraordinary circumstances,” Facebook said in the court filing. Six4Three alleged in its lawsuit filed three years ago that Facebook effectively doomed its business plan and reneged on promises to scores of app developers when it cut off their access to friends’ data in 2015. Facebook has denied the allegations and accused Six4Three of making sensational claims and mischaracterising its internal records to attract media interest.
Damian Collins, who heads Parliament’s digital, culture, media and sport select committee, said over the weekend that he is free under UK law to disclose the Facebook documents.
“The committee’s interest in the documents we have requested relates to their relevance to our ongoing inquiry into disinformation and fake news,” Collins said in a letter to Facebook’s vice-president of policy, Richard Allan. “As you know, we have asked many questions of Facebook about its policies on sharing user data with developers, how these have been enforced, and how the company identifies activity of bad actors. We believe the documents we have ordered from Six4Three could contain important information about this which is of a high level of public interest.”
The British lawmaker learned about Six4Three’s lawsuit from a journalist and tracked down one of Six4Three’s principals, Ted Kramer, during a business trip to London, according to a court filing. Kramer initially refused to cooperate, according to the filing. But when Collins stepped up pressure, suggesting that Kramer could go to prison for defying an order from Parliament, he panicked, opened his laptop, found some files he claims he hadn’t read and copied them onto a flash drive for Collins, the filing shows.
Several media organisations had urged San Mateo County Superior Court judge V Raymond Swope to order the confidential Facebook documents unsealed as a matter of public interest. But in October, Swope refused, calling the request “procedurally premature.” He also wrote that Six4Three didn’t convince him that the documents were relevant to the case and accused the company’s lawyers of engaging in “brute litigation overkill.”
Facebook said in Monday’s filing that Six4Three’s lawsuit should be thrown out entirely as punishment for the firm’s egregious disregard of the judge’s order to keep the records confidential. Allan told Collins he’s wary of testifying openly at Tuesday’s hearing with the California judge having prohibited public discussion of the confidential files. “I understand that Parliamentary privilege protects participants for anything said during a hearing of your committee,” he wrote in a letter to the lawmaker. “It may be helpful for us to discuss this matter again after we have further guidance from the court.”