On Wednesday, December 7, I was studying for a psychology test in my college library when I received an email from the Securities and Exchange Commission’s Freedom of Information Act officer. Attached was a file of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s statement to the agency in 2019. I put my books down.
The document came after a year of waiting on a public records request he had filed after seeing a tweet from Jason Kint, chief executive of the Digital Content Next trade group. The tweet contained an image from a court filing in which Facebook’s lawyers publicly revealed that the SEC had deposed him. This was new information, and something of particular interest to those of us who pay close attention to what Zuckerberg has to say about his company, particularly as it relates to the Cambridge Analytica scandal. It turns out that the document in question shows that Zuckerberg misled lawmakers about when he became aware of that notorious signature.
(My colleagues and I on the Real Facebook Supervisory Board posted the full transcript we received from the commission on our website. It can be found here.)
The statement was part of an investigation into the SECOND investigating whether Facebook had misled investors for years after company employees first discovered the Cambridge Analytica data breach. The now-defunct British political consulting firm worked for the Trump campaign in 2016 and claimed to do “psychographic targeting” on Facebook through posts and ads. Cambridge Analytica obtained the personal information of millions of users after Cambridge University academics Aleksandr Kogan and Joseph Chancellor tracked Facebook profiles through a third-party app they had developed. They then sold that data to Cambridge Analytica.
That episode stunned consumers with its revelations about the leaking of the Facebook platform years ago and the ease with which political actors were able to obtain potentially sensitive user data. The incident set the stage for a record $5 billion Federal Trade Commission penalty, as well as a smaller $100 million settlement with the SEC, announced the same day.
But public disclosure and Facebook’s liability for the Cambridge Analytica scandal has never really come to fruition. The UK Information Commissioner’s Office produced a hasty letter about its findings on data misuse by Cambridge Analytica after promising a full report to a UK parliamentary panel. Details have been slowly trickling out of the Senate Intelligence Committee, other public records inquiries for special counsel Robert Mueller’s interviews and, most recently, litigation in Washington, D.C.; the Northern District of California; and Delaware.
Seeking more details about what Mark Zuckerberg knew about Cambridge Analytica and when he knew it, I filed my request in November 2021. A week later, the SEC hastily denied my request, saying they could neither “confirm nor deny” the existence of the statement. . (a common denial used by agencies on public records requests). I thought that was absurd, considering that Facebook itself had revealed that this document existed and even included a date that the plea was made in DC court.
So I appealed. Without legal advice, I investigated the FOIA appeals filed with the commission. Relying on DC court filings, precedent that the SEC has released statements from other CEOs (such as the convicted Theranos chief elizabeth holmes), and an obvious case of public interest desire, I built my appeal. In January of this year I presented it.
In February, to the surprise of myself and my colleagues, the SEC’s Office of General Counsel approved my application and said it would start looking for “responsive records.” Great! I thought. I’m going to get this transcript!
Not so fast. What followed was a month of back and forth with SEC lawyers who told me that Zuckerberg and Facebook have a say in what information is redacted and what is published. They told me that March, April, June, August and September were months when I could expect a response. But every month, he emailed the commission to request a status update. To their credit they did reply but I still had to wait.
Finally, in December, I had it. Two important findings stood out to my colleagues and me when I first held it in my hands. As has now been reported by CNN, Reutersand others, Zuckerberg wrote a statement in September 2017 would speak on Facebook Live about the threat from Russian intelligence agents on Facebook and the actions Facebook was taking. But according to the statement, SEC lawyers obtained a draft of the speech in which Zuckerberg mentioned names, specifically Cambridge Analytica, which he saw in September 2017 as a threat commensurate with these Russian actors. The advisors would later remove him from the speech; we may never know why.
The world would continue to learn about Cambridge Analytica in March 2018 when The Guardian and the New York Times broke the story. It was also then that Zuckerberg claimed that he found out about Cambridge Analytica, or at least that’s what he told Congress and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez during his 2019 testimony.
SEC lawyers also presented Zuckerberg with an email from January 2017, eight months before the speech, in which he appeared to first ask about Cambridge Analytica in the context of an article that appeared in vice/motherboard. He asked, “Can someone explain to me what they actually did from an analytics and advertising perspective and how advanced it really was?”
This discrepancy of when Zuckerberg personally first learned about Cambridge Analytica and when he disclosed it to investors is a shareholder issue. lawsuit in Delaware Chancery Court, where a large shareholder conglomerate alleges that Facebook executives violated their fiduciary duties, overpaid the FTC to shield Zuckerberg from personal liability and engaged in insider trading.
This Zuckerberg timeline question also caught the attention of Ocasio-Cortez, who tweeted about the statement’s coverage, saying: “His testimony before Congress said March 2018. Newly exposed documents reveal he knew as early as January 2018. 2017”.
A couple of other honorable mentions from this statement: It looks like former Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg was probably ousted as well. SEC lawyers asked Zuckerberg if she had discussed her statement with anyone else. He recalled having a conversation with a woman whose name is redacted but who had an office next door to his, from what he saw when Facebook lawyers came to prepare her for her statement. I filed a plea request that was denied by the SEC on Tuesday. I will appeal.
The best tidbit of this has to be a presumably nervous Zuckerberg killing his own middle name at the beginning of the transcription by adding an extra “T” when asked to spell “Elliot.” “Not a good start when you forget how to spell your middle name. Don’t use it a lot,” he joked.
When reporters covering this story took to Facebook for comment this week, they simply commented that their case with the SEC had been settled for more than three years and declined to comment further. My response to them is: So why weren’t these details revealed at the time?
This twist, and these documents, which took more than a year of appeals and disputes to obtain, show the lengths to which Facebook’s leadership will go to obfuscate the truth. The fact that new revelations about Facebook’s interaction with Cambridge Analytica are still being uncovered, and spawning more falsehoods, should inspire continued questions about whether we can trust this company to be transparent and forthright, even when in check. oath.