Facebook resists inquiry into Cambodia voter-manipulation claims

Facebook is resisting requests by a political opponent of Cambodia PM Hun Sen to turn over info that will help him fight what he calls trumped-up criminal and civil claims against him brought by the ruling regime

Joel Rosenblatt
Updated30 Apr 2018
A file photo of Cambodia Prime Minister Hun Sen. Photo: AFP
A file photo of Cambodia Prime Minister Hun Sen. Photo: AFP

San Francisco:Facebook Inc. doesn’t want to be drawn into a political dispute between the ruling and opposition parties of Cambodia. It may not have a choice.

The global social-media network is resisting requests by a political opponent of Cambodia Prime Minister Hun Sen to turn over information that will help him fight what he calls trumped-up criminal and civil claims against him brought by the ruling regime.

Sam Rainsy, the leader of Cambodia’s National Rescue Party, has lived outside the country since 2015 amid multiple threats and jail time he faces there. A lawyer for Sam Rainsy is scheduled Monday to ask a court in San Francisco to order California-based Facebook to turn over the information.

A subpoena issued by a US court would help Sam Rainsy respond to the regime’s charges and show that Hun Sen and his agents have purchased substantial advertising to distribute propaganda and misuse Facebook’s platform, he said in a court filing. It would also allow him to file his own cases challenging what he claims are Hun Sen’s abuses.

Anthony Harrison, a spokesman for Menlo Park-based Facebook, declined to comment. A spokesman for the Cambodian government didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Hun Sen and his agents have called Sam Rainsy’s request for information “stupid,” court filings show.

Facebook continues to wrestle with revelations that data for millions of its users was shared without their consent and misappropriated for the US presidential election. With his lawsuit, Sam Rainsy is confronting the social network with claims not only that its platform is being manipulated to aid a repressive regime, but also that it’s become the main source of news and public information in a country where the media is bridled.

Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party has held power for more than 30 years. He has faced large protests -- over issues as diverse as demanding an election recount to raising the minimum wage for garment workers -- that have previously drawn support from broad sectors of society and made the national government nervous about dissent.

Privacy law

Granting Sam Rainsy’s subpoena would force Facebook to conduct and disclose a wide-ranging investigation into user accounts “as part of a fishing expedition for material to use in his longstanding campaign against the prime minister of Cambodia,” the company said in a court filing. It would also force the company to reveal the prime minister’s private communications and account activity of his opponents, in violation of US privacy laws, Facebook said.

The social network claims in court filings that Sam Rainsy hasn’t cleared a legal hurdle requiring him to demonstrate the information he seeks is usable in a foreign legal proceeding.

Facebook argues that Sam Rainsy has offered only “the most skeletal account of the purported proceedings,” adding that there are “strong indications” that he’s gathering evidence for future legal action in the International Criminal Court. US law prohibits the district court from issuing a subpoena to support ICC proceedings, according to Facebook.

Sam Rainsy counters that the “entire world” is aware of the cases brought against him, which he has shared with the San Francisco court, and his intended use of the information he’s after is clear. Claims that he’s gathering evidence for the Hague-based ICC amount to “speculation and innuendo,” according to a court filing.

Fake ‘likes’?

Some of the charges against Sam Rainsy in Cambodia stem from his own use of Facebook, he says, after he posted allegations that millions of Hun Sen’s “likes” on the platform were generated by “click farms.” Another is based on a post by him claiming Hun Sen’s regime ordered the assassination of human-rights activist and journalist Kem Ley. Hun Sen sued Sam Rainsy for suggesting the government was involved.

Finally, Sam Rainsy claims he’s not seeking the actual content of communications -- which is already known -- but rather information about who’s behind it.

If Sam Rainsy can prove, for example, that Hun Sen paid for his popularity on Facebook by purchasing “likes” outside the country or engaging in deceptive advertising, it will undermine the government’s defamation case against him, his lawyer, Noah Hagey, said in an interview.

“We seek evidence in Facebook’s possession that will help exonerate our client,” Hagey said. “Much of this is the type of information that Facebook itself has increasingly shared with the public -- and should disclose—as part of its purported effort to redress and resolve abuses on its platform.” He added that Sam Rainsy’s inquiry stands as a “test case for Facebook’s professed interest in transparency and helping to deter malignant actors.”

US magistrate judge Sallie Kim will hear the request.

The case is Sam Rainsy v. Facebook, 18-mc-80024, US District Court for the Northern District of California (San Francisco). Bloomberg

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