Facebook the target of international lawmakers at Ottawa hearing

A testy group of international lawmakers peppered officials from Facebook, Google and Twitter at a parliamentary committee meeting Tuesday, trying to pin the social media giants down on how they will prevent fake news from disrupting democracy in their countries.

The session was a combined meeting of the House of Commons privacy and ethics committee and the International Grand Committee of lawmakers from a dozen countries on privacy, big data and democracy.

And the bulk of the heat was aimed at Facebook, a platform under siege since the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke last year.

Here are a few examples of what the day was like:

Canadian MP Charlie Angus

–Canadian MP Charlie Angus questioning Facebook Canada head of public policy Kevin Chan:
Why, Angus asked, during the investigation by the federal privacy commissioner of the Canadian Facebook users caught in the scandal, did the company refuse to recognize this country’s jurisdiction?

There was no Canadian data sent to Cambridge Analytica, Chan replied.

Over 622,000 Canadians had their data taken, retorted Angus, and Facebook knew in 2015. “That is a breach of Canadian law … How do you get to decide what laws you respect and don’t apply to you?”

Chan: “We go above and beyond law ….

“No you don’t,” Angus interrupted, “You don’t recognize we have jurisdiction. how can you say that with a straight face?”

Chan: “Because it is the truth, sir.”

Angus: “So we have to take you to court after … you sat on a breach because you didn’t want to upset your business model.”

Kevin Chan, Facebook Canada

–British MP Damian Collins, co-chair of the International Grand Committee, asked Facebook director of public policy Neil Potts why his company wouldn’t take down a video of U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi which had been slowed down from her usual talking style:

“One of our principle concerns,” Collins said, “is deceptive information is a harm to democracy and used to undermine political figures and process.” The video “presents a distorted impression of her and undermines her public reputation.” Why not take it down the way Google-owned YouTube has?

Potts: “We are taking action against that video …”

Collins interrupts: “Answer the question, don’t give statements about Facebook policies.”

Potts: “We are aggressively downranking that…”

Collins: Why aren’t you taking it down?”

Potts: “It is our policy to inform people [by marking content with a flag] when we have information that may be false on the platform so they can make their own decisions.”

“Do you not see that what Facebook is doing,” Collins said, “is giving a green light to anyone in the world that wants to make a distorted or fake film about a senior politician … will know whatever happens Facebook won’t remove the film.”
Facebook has chosen to let users understand what other parties think of that video and let them make their own decision, Potts repeated.

“It’s not a question of free speech,” replied Collins, “it’s a question of manipulating content to undermine public figures. My concern to leave it up there where it is undisputably fake and allow it to be shared … is irresponsible. YouTube removed this content and I don’t understand why you don’t do the same.”

Potts noted the public is talking not as if the video is real, but that it’s fake. So, he reasoned, Facebook’s decision is working.

Later Potts said unless a video advocates harm Facebook won’t be taken down.

Neil Potts, Facebook

— Edwin Tong, a lawmaker from Singapore, complained about a video on Facebook from a man in Sri Lanka six months before a suicide bombing in April who said it was all right to kill women and children. That, Tong said, was hate speech. Facebook was warned by local Muslims about the video but it wasn’t taken down.

Potts said when Facebook is made aware of such videos they are removed.

But this one wasn’t Tong said. He suggested violent content “drives eyeballs for your profits.”

“I reject that premise wholeheartedly,” retorted Potts.

–Canadian MP Jacques Gourde demanded to know if the three platforms have the capacity to put a stop to fake news during the upcoming federal election and “any hate advertising that would taint our democracy.”

Facebook wants “to do everything in our power to protect elections” here, Chan said. He started to say the platform is working with Canadian political parties before Gourde interrupted: Do you have the capacity to rapidly put a stop to fake news or fake advertising, he asked?

Chan: “We have a team that has worked on the [recent] Ontario,B.C. and PEI elections….

Gourde again interrupted and repeated his question. Chan replied that Facebook had no problems getting fast action during the provincial elections.

Derek Slater, Google’s director of government policy, and Carlos Monje, Twitter’s director of public policy indicated their platforms are ready.

Angry at no-show CEOs

In between, Chan, Potts, Slater and Monje tried to convince the lawmakers that their platforms are working hard to clamp down on foreign influence in political ads, hate messages and disinformation. The message was government regulation isn’t needed, although Slater said it would help if governments could agree on a definition what is unlawful speech.

The lawmakers’ anger about the no-shows by subpoenaed CEOs of Facebook, Google and Twitter culminated with the Canadian MPs voting to issue a summons to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg should they ever step foot in Canada again. The summons would have them appear before the ethics committee.

Several lawmakers noted that Zuckerberg was willing to meet privately with government leaders, but not appear before legislatures.
“It was in good faith we asked [Facebook’s] CEO and COO to come before us today, to work together on solutions to these problems,” said ethics committee chair Bob Zimmer. “It’s shameful they are not here today to answer questions you [Chan and Potts] could not fully answer. That’s what’s troubling We’re trying to work with you.

“Shame on Mark Zuckerberg and shame on Sheryl Sandberg for not showing up today.”

The three days of hearings end Wednesday morning with testimony from officials from Microsoft, Amazon, Apple and Mozilla.

The member countries of the International Grand Committee signed a declaration committing their governments to protecting fair competition, increasing the accountability of social media platforms, protecting privacy rights and personal data, and maintaining and strengthening democracy.

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Howard Solomon
Howard Solomon
Currently a freelance writer, I'm the former editor of ITWorldCanada.com and Computing Canada. An IT journalist since 1997, I've written for several of ITWC's sister publications including ITBusiness.ca and Computer Dealer News. Before that I was a staff reporter at the Calgary Herald and the Brampton (Ont.) Daily Times. I can be reached at hsolomon [@] soloreporter.com

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