UPDATE: May 8, 2018 — The original story, published on May 1, reported that U.S. Magistrate Judge Sallie Kim had said she was "likely" to give Sam Rainsy the ability "to get some information from Facebook." But in her final ruling on May 4, she denied the Cambodian politician's application, calling it “overly broad and burdensome.” Rainsy told VICE News he plans on narrowing his application and refiling it with the court this week.
A California court ruled Monday that Facebook must turn over information about how it works with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, the popular strongman accused of using his Facebook popularity to push state propaganda and silence opposition voices.
The decision could reveal how closely Facebook works with repressive regimes like Hun Sen's, and whether it gives such governments special treatment to promote their agendas.
Cambodian activist and opposition leader Sam Rainsy filed the lawsuit against Facebook in February in a bid to show how Hun Sen has misused the platform by buying fake likes to prop up his regime. Hun Sen has nearly 10 million followers in a country that boasts fewer than 5 million known Facebook users — a disparity that Rainsy claims shows the prime minister has bought fake likes from “click farms.”
Exiled and living in France since 2015, Rainsy faces a series of criminal and civil defamation claims in Cambodia related to his vocal criticism of Hun Sen. He believes Facebook holds information that will help him defend himself against what he says are politically motivated government charges.
Facebook has rebuffed Rainsy’s demands, calling his request a "fishing expedition," and arguing that handing over Hun Sen’s private communications and account activity would be in violation of U.S. privacy law.
But U.S. Magistrate Judge Sallie Kim wasn’t swayed by the Silicon Valley giant and ruled in the Cambodian opposition leader's favor. “I’m likely going to give Mr. Sam the ability to get some information from Facebook,” she said during the hearing in San Francisco.
Rainsy applauded the court's ruling and sold it as a win for Cambodia's opposition.
“I am grateful to the Court’s careful review of the application, and to its indication that discovery of Facebook will be permitted,” Rainsy told VICE News. “We are confident that evidence in Facebook’s possession will exonerate me from Hun Sen’s claims and establish that he and his agents are misusing the platform to defraud ordinary Cambodians during this critical time in our country.”
But such disclosures carry significant risks for Facebook, which has faced mounting pressure for its bungling of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. The social network is getting grilled around the world over its lack of transparency and failure to adequately police its platform. Hate speech, death threats, and incitement to violence continue to spread on Facebook in countries such as Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and the Czech Republic.
Specifically, Rainsy’s lawsuit could expose in new detail the extent to which Cambodia’s government abused the platform and just how closely it worked with Facebook in the process, experts recently told VICE News. At the very least, the legal process will again put the embattled company in the position of having to explain what sort of role it’s playing in democracies around the world.
“Facebook may not be directly responsible for propping up Hun Sen, but by having a platform that can be easily manipulated for political purposes — and the general lack of transparency in how such issues are handled — shows the slippery slope of when public figures use social media spaces for their own self-serving purposes,” Champa Patel, head of the Asia program at London-based think tank Chatham House, told VICE News.
Facebook didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. But it's made its position clear regarding Rainsy’s requests. In a court filing last month, it signaled its intentions to block the lawsuit, calling Rainsy’s effort “part of a fishing expedition for material to use in his long-standing campaign against the prime minister of Cambodia.”
In subsequent court filings, Facebook said Rainsy has not proven that he can use the information he is seeking in a foreign legal action, adding that the politician has gathered “the most skeletal account of the purported proceedings.”
Facebook plays an outsized role in how people communicate online in Cambodia, and for many, the social network is their main way to access the internet.
Hun Sen has seized on the platform’s popularity, using the tool to cement his 33-year grip on power while silencing opposing voices. The world's longest-serving prime minister has also used Facebook to silence critics, recently arresting a man on his wedding day over a Facebook post that called the government “authoritarian.”
Cambodia is just one of many countries where Facebook is accused of failing to adequately police its platform and guard against government abuse. In Thailand it frequently deletes posts critical of the royal family under the country’s strict lèse majesté laws; in the Philippines the company is accused of helping the regime of strongman Rodrigo Duterte; and in Myanmar Facebook has been accused by the U.N. of facilitating ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims by failing to stop the spread of hate speech.
Cover image: Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen delivers a speech during commissioning ceremony of a road funded by Japan for its official use at Kdey Takoy village, outside of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)