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Former FTC official says Facebook representative made false statements to international leaders about how the company handles personal data

Key Points
  • On Tuesday, parliamentarians from nine countries convened in the U.K. for a hearing with Facebook Vice President of Policy Solutions Richard Allan about misinformation on the platform.
  • Former Federal Trade Commission Chief Technologist Ashkan Soltani gave a surprise testimony later in the day where he claimed Allan's earlier statements about how Facebook lets third-party developers access user data were misleading.
  • Soltani referenced a 2011 FTC settlement where the commission claimed Facebook let third-party developers access user profile data even if their profiles were set to private.
Mark Zuckerberg testifies before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill April 11, 2018.
Chip Somodevilla | Getty Images

A former Federal Trade Commission official claimed a Facebook official mislead and international committee of parliamentarians Tuesday in a hearing about the company's privacy policies.

The allegation centers around whether third-party developers had access to information on private Facebook profiles in the early days of the platform. In response to a question from Damian Collins, chair of the U.K. culture, media and sport select committee, about Facebook's changes to its developer policies in 2014, Facebook Vice President of Policy Solutions Richard Allan said there were two distinct versions of the platform at the time. Facebook was transitioning developers onto the newer platform with more limited information, Allan said.

"What developers had under the first version was the ability to ask you to install their application, and if you agreed to it and agreed to certain permissions, then they could also access some of the information that your friends shared with you. Version two stopped that," Allan said. "So in neither version was it full access to data. In version one it included some access to friends' data where they'd given permission, in version two, that access was removed."

"This is false," former Obama-era FTC Chief Technologist Ashkan Soltani told the committee later in the day.

Soltani made an unexpected appearance at Tuesday's hearing in the U.K. to debunk what he claimed were technical issues with testimony. Soltani said his visit was so last minute that he had to borrow a blazer from a friend before showing up in front of government officials.

In disputing Allan's testimony, Soltani cited a 2011 settlement between Facebook and the FTC, where the commission alleged Facebook misled users by allowing their profile information to be accessible to app developers even when their profiles were set to private. He also said white listed apps he tested on Facebook as late as 2018 could still access personal information and information of friends even if they had turned off this setting.

This contradicts Allan's statement that "version one" of the platform pre-2014 only "included some access to friends' data where they'd given permission."

Soltani said his motivation for coming to the committee was to provide them the technical expertise that would help it make an informed decision about Facebook. He said he has been working on this issue for the past decade and has tested the the app privacy settings himself. Soltani said he was a technical consultant for the Wall Street Journal's "What They Know" series about information privacy.

"When companies make technically nuanced and perhaps ... deceitful statements, it kind of gets under my skin," Soltani said.

Facebook did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

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