Canadian parliamentarians have invited the heads of some of the biggest social media and tech companies to testify at a special international hearing into online disinformation, one of a number of attempts by politicians to put pressure on platforms to get tough on what is broadly called fake news.
The House of Commons standing committee on access to information, privacy and ethics issued a release Wednesday saying it has invited executives from 10 digital platforms to testify at the second meeting of the International Grand Committee on Disinformation and ‘Fake News’ in Ottawa on May 28.
The Grand Committee is made up of politicians from nine countries — Canada, the U.K., Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, France, Ireland, Latvia and Singapore — who want action to check the spread of fake news on web sites around the world.
Those invited are
- Facebook CEO Mark Zukerberg,
- Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg,
- Google CEO Sundar Pichai,
- Former Google executive chair Eric Schmidt,
- Apple CEO Tim Cook,
- Apple COO Jeff Williams,
- Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos
- Amazon Web Services (AWS) CEO Andrew Jassy,
- Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey,
- WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton and
- Snap Inc. CEO Evan Spiegel
“I am hopeful that these executives will take advantage of this unique opportunity to speak to representatives from around the globe about what their platforms are doing to ensure the privacy of our citizens,” said Conservative MP Bob Zimmer, who chairs the ethics committee. “I am also looking forward to hearing from them about what is being done to stop the spread of disinformation and how they are protecting users from the threats of manipulation online.
“It is vitally important that we hear from these top executives so that we can get the answers we’ve been seeking, We will not be accepting testimony from regional representatives at this meeting, as previous experience has shown that their answers have proven to be frankly inadequate.”
That may have been a reference to the committee’s first hearing last November as part of a U.K. parliamentary committee hearing into disinformation. At that time Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg declined an invitation to appear before the hearing, instead sending London-based vice-president of policy solutions Richard Allen.
“We are not asking you to be perfect,” NDP MP Charlie Angus was quoted as telling Allen. “We are asking you to be accountable when issues come up such as genocide, such as misinformation.”
For its part Facebook over the past several months has said it has been shutting sites and hiring more people to scrutinize content. Meanwhile a few days ago Google revealed a white paper saying it will fight disinformation largely through improving its algorithms. (For more detail from Google click here). Twitter has been taking down fake accounts.
It isn’t known yet how many of the invitees will show up for the May 28 meeting.
The Grand Committee is made up of 24 members, including 11 members of the U.K. parliamentary digital committee. The Grand Committee has already agreed to five principles:
- i. The internet is global and law relating to it must derive from globally agreed principles;
- ii. The deliberate spreading of disinformation and division is a credible threat to the continuation and growth of democracy and a civilizing global dialogue;
- iii. Global technology firms must recognize their great power and demonstrate their readiness to accept their great responsibility as holders of influence;
- iv. Social Media companies should be held liable if they fail to comply with a judicial, statutory or regulatory order to remove harmful and misleading content from their platforms, and should be regulated to ensure they comply with this requirement;
- v. Technology companies must demonstrate their accountability to users by making themselves fully answerable to national legislatures and other organs of representative democracy.
The U.K. committee issued its final report on Monday. It has tossed aside the term fake news in preference to disinformation, which it defines as the deliberate creation and sharing of false and/or manipulated information that is intended to deceive and mislead audiences, either for the purposes of causing harm, or for political, personal or financial gain.
In December, Zimmer’s committee issued its own report on the risks of disinformation and data monopolies in Canada. Its recommendations included a call for the government to force social media platforms to be more open on how their algorithms select and label content, to better identify paid online ads online, to promptly remove inauthentic and fraudulent accounts, and to remove “manifestly illegal contents such as hate speech.”