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British politician questions Facebook over Russian data collection

A chair was pointedly left open with Zuckerberg's name printed on a place card in front of it at the inaugural "Grand Committee on Disinformation" hearing.

LONDON — A British lawmaker alleged on Tuesday that seized documents from Facebook show that a company engineer identified a major data collection effort based in Russia that had been previously undisclosed.

Facebook, however, later released the emails in question that appeared to show the initial concern was a false alarm.

Damian Collins, the British lawmaker who chairs a parliamentary committee investigating disinformation and the use of people's data, asked during a hearing on Tuesday whether the company had reported to any "external body" that a Facebook engineer had told the company in October 2014 that computers with links to Russia were collecting "over 3 billion data points a day" through a Facebook access point.

It was not immediately clear what information was taken or how the data could have been used.

Collins' question was based on a group of seized confidential Facebook documents from the developer of a now-defunct bikini photo-searching app.

The documents contain revelations Facebook has been fighting to keep out of the public domain, The Observer newspaper reported. The committee used its powers to force Theodore Kramer, chief executive of Six4Three, the company behind the photo app, who was on a business trip to London, to turn over the files. Kramer refused but was escorted to parliament and told he risked imprisonment if he didn't comply, The Observer reported.

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's chief executive, refused to attend the hearing or answer any question remotely, leaving Richard Allan, the social media giant’s vice president of policy solutions, to attend.

Allan dodged the question, saying that information in the emails was "at best partial and potentially misleading."

A spokesperson for Facebook said that "the engineers who had flagged these initial concerns subsequently looked into this further and found no evidence of specific Russian activity."

Facebook later released the emails in which the company engineer appeared to say that the initial report was a false alarm.

Collins appeared unconvinced by the emails, tweeting that the documents "don't confirm how much was taken."

Representatives from countries including the U.K., Canada, Ireland, Argentina, Brazil, Singapore and Latvia attended the hearing, which was billed as the inaugural "Grand Committee on Disinformation.” France and Belgium also attended Tuesday's hearing at the House of Commons in London.

A chair was pointedly left open with Zuckerberg's name printed on a place card in front of it.

Politicians appeared exasperated at times with Allan's responses to questions. Charlie Angus, a Canadian lawmaker, brushed aside Allan's admission that Facebook had faulted, instead focusing on the company's lack of response to ongoing problems.

"We are not asking you to be perfect," Angus said. "We are asking you to be accountable when issues come up such as genocide, such as misinformation."

Angus also pointedly referenced Zuckerberg's absence in relation to the need for greater regulation of the company.

"We have to start looking at a method of holding you and your company to be accountable, because Mr. Zuckerberg, who is not here, doesn’t appear to be willing to do the job himself," Angus said.

Collins said he was "deeply disappointed by Zuckerberg's decision to ignore summons from so many nations."

Among the concerns raised by lawmakers was Facebook's policies regarding third-party application developers and the use and collection of user data, such as the app that pulled the user data of millions of Facebook users — data that eventually ended up in the possession of political consultancy Cambridge Analytica.

Ian Lucas, a British politician, questioned Allan on when Zuckerberg became aware of the improper use of data for targeted political ads by Cambridge Analytica and whether the company has taken action against other third-party developers for similar data breaches.

Allan said there have been a "number of actions taken" against developers but added, "I don't have in front of me today all of the answers to all of the questions."