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By Saphora Smith and Olivia Solon
LONDON — British lawmakers have obtained documents that could be “highly relevant” to a parliamentary inquiry that has been looking into Facebook’s response to disinformation, a spokesperson told NBC News on Sunday.
The documents reportedly contain revelations Facebook has been fighting to keep out of the public domain relating to the company’s data and privacy policies that led to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, The Observer newspaper in London reported Saturday.
The Observer reported that the files, which it said include correspondence from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, were seized from the founder of a U.S. software company, Six4Three, which is engaged in legal action against the tech giant.
NBC News could not confirm the details of the report, but a spokesperson for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) select committee — which is conducting the investigation — confirmed to NBC News that it had “used a parliamentary order to obtain documents that could be highly relevant to the inquiry.”
A spokesperson for Facebook told NBC News late Saturday that “the materials obtained by the DCMS committee are subject to a protective order of the San Mateo Superior Court restricting their disclosure.”
Six4Three filed a complaint against Facebook at the Superior Court of California County of San Matteo in 2015. According to court documents, the company accuses Zuckerberg of attempting to “deliberately” mislead tens of thousands of software companies into “developing applications that generated substantial user growth and revenues for Facebook.”
NBC News has reached out to representatives for Six4Three for comment.
For two years Facebook has been rocked by crises involving covert Russian propaganda, the mishandling of millions of users’ personal information and the hiring of a public relations firm that had what one former employee called an “in-house fake news shop.”
Sources have told NBC News that Zuckerberg and chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg believe Facebook’s negative image is a public relations problem that stems from a bungled press strategy and sensational media coverage — not structural or philosophical shortcomings that require a wholesale course correction.
The British parliament’s seizure of the documents comes after Zuckerberg declined to appear before an international coalition of elected officials investigating disinformation and election interference that is scheduled to meet in London on Tuesday.
Representatives from the U.K., Canada, Australia, Ireland, Argentina, Brazil, Singapore and Latvia invited Zuckerberg to give evidence at a meeting at the Houses of Parliament, but Zuckerberg declined.
British lawmaker Damian Collins — who is the chairman of the DCMS committee tasked with investigating disinformation and assembled the international coalition — told NBC News Zuckerberg was “frightened of being exposed.”
Collins said “the really big question” he wanted to ask Zuckerberg was, “What did he know about the concerns about data privacy?”
Collins assembled the “International Grand Committee” partly as a response to Zuckerberg’s insistence that he was too busy to visit individual national parliaments to answer further questions about Facebook’s efforts to crack down on the misuse of its platform.
In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which triggered global scrutiny of Facebook’s data collection practices, Zuckerberg has only answered to lawmakers in public twice: before Congress in April and European Parliament in May.
Facebook has offered Richard Allan, vice president of policy solutions, to attend next week’s hearing in Zuckerberg’s place.
“It makes it look like he’s got something to hide and he’s worried that we may have information and questions we could put to him that would put him in a difficult position,” Collins said.
“He’s deliberately avoiding that sort of scrutiny.”
Kate Brannelly contributed.