Facebook executives faced tough questioning by politicians from nine countries — including Canada — at a hearing this morning in London.
Among those doing the questioning was Ontario NDP member of parliament Charlie Angus, who according to news reports focused on the company’s lack of response to ongoing problems.
“We are not asking you to be perfect,” Angus was quoted as saying. “We are asking you to be accountable when issues come up such as genocide, such as misinformation.” Angus is vice-chair of the Canadian House of Commons standing committee on access to information, privacy and ethics, Also at the hearing are committee chair Bob Zimmer (PC) and vice-chair Nathaniel Erskine-Smith (L).
The politicians from the U.K., Canada, Ireland, Argentina, Brazil, Singapore and Latvia — dubbed the ‘international grand committee on disinformation and fake news’ — grilled Richard Allan, Facebook’s vice-president of policy solutions and a member of the British House of Lords, on the company’s data privacy practices. CEO Mark Zukerberg was invited but didn’t attend.
“I’m not going to disagree with you that we’ve damaged public trust through some of the actions we’ve taken,” Allan was quoted by CBC as telling the hearing.
The politicians were invited the participate by British MP Damian Collins, who chairs a parliamentary committee investigating disinformation and the use of people’s data. Later this afternoon U.K. information commissioner Elizabeth Denham will testify.
Also this afternoon the politicians signed a non-binding set of ‘International Principles for the Law Governing the Internet.’
The declaration says in part that social media companies should be legally liable to act against known sources of harmful and misleading content on their platforms, and should be regulated to ensure they comply with this requirement. In addition, technology companies must demonstrate their accountability to users by making themselves fully answerable to national legislatures and other organs of representative democracy.
CNBC said concerns raised by lawmakers in this morning’s session included Facebook’s policies regarding third-party application developers and the use and collection of user data.
CNBC said British MP Ian Lucas questioned Allan on when Zuckerberg became aware of the improper use of data for targeted political ads by the firm Cambridge Analytica and whether the company has taken action against other third-party developers for similar data breaches.
Allan replied there have been a “number of actions taken” against developers but added, “I don’t have in front of me today all of the answers to all of the questions.”
The hearing comes as Collins’ committee on the weekend compelled the founder of a U.S. software company, Six4Three, to hand over a large cache of documents he was carrying during a business trip to London. That company had obtained the documents as part of a legal discovery process in a lawsuit against Facebook. It isn’t clear if those documents can be made public, but according to Bloomberg News, Collins found an email in the documents suggesting Facebook knew that Russian-linked entities were using a feature on the social network that let advertisers harvest large amounts of data as early as October 2014. Facebook has said it was unaware of this sort of Russian activity on the social network until after the 2016 U.S. election when allegations were raised that Russian agencies had used Facebook as part of an campaign to influence U.S. opinion.
Bloomberg said Facebook replied this morning that the document cited by Collins was taken out of context. “The engineers who had flagged these initial concerns subsequently looked into this further and found no evidence of specific Russian activity,” it told Bloomberg.
The hearing comes after the New York Times published a lengthy feature two weeks ago alleging Facebook tried to mask the problem after learning the company had compromised users’ privacy by allowing access to the personal information of tens of millions of people in the Cambridge Analytica mess.
(This story has been updated from the original to note there are three Canadian MPs at the hearing. Also added were details of the principles for Internet governance agreed to by the politicians)