The invitations have been sent to chief executives of some of the world’s biggest social media platforms, but no one knows who will show up for the start tonight of a three-day parliamentary committee meeting in Ottawa before a group of elected representatives from 13 countries.
Subpoenas went out in February to Facebook, Twitter, Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Apple. Those subpoenas are only effective to people in Canada, and Mark Zuckerberg, Tim Cook, Jeff Bezos and others mainly living in the U.S. Whether companies will send their CEOs or lower-level executives will only be known at 8:30 a.m. when the House of Commons standing committee on access to information, privacy and ethics convenes.
Last week committee Canadian MP Bob Zimmer – the host of this week’s international meeting – said that “if Mark Zuckerberg is sincere in his commitment to discuss these issues with lawmakers, he will comply with our subpoena and show up.”
UPDATE: In an interview this afternoon (May 27) Zimmer said all of the invited companies have agreed to send an official, but there is no confirmation that CEOs will show up. The House committee could recommend that the no-shows be held in contempt of Parliament.
The country will only know Tuesday morning when the committee is scheduled to hear from the internet companies. Tonight witnesses scheduled to testify include Roger McNamee, Facebook investor turned critic and author of the book Zucked; Harvard Business School professor Shoshana Zuboff, author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism; and former BlackBerry co-CEO Jim Balsillie, who is now chair of the Waterloo, Ont.-based Centre for International Governance Innovation.
The House of Commons committee will be sitting as the International Grand Committee on Big Data, Privacy and Democracy, with politicians from Canada, Argentina, Chile, Estonia, Germany, Ireland, Singapore, the United Kingdom, Ecuador, Mexico, Morocco, and Trinidad and Tobago in attendence.
It hopes to hear not only from the platforms but also experts on how governments can protect democracy and citizen rights at a time when there is ample evidence of disinformation and misinformation — some of it coming from nation states — planted on social media platforms. At the same time some social media platforms are accused of playing fast and loose with the personal data they collect.
“What I hope as chair to hear is how they are responding to some of the concerns about data security, privacy et cetera — what they are doing to get a handle on it all. This all started with the Cambridge Analytica scandal and a bunch of promises by executives that they were going to do better and they’d do their best to stop that happening. Frankly, we haven’t seen those coming.”
Among those also scheduled to testify are Daniel Therrien, Canada’s federal privacy commissioner; Ellen Weintraub, chair of the U.S. Federal Elections Commission; and McGill University professor of public policy Taylor Owen,
In a column in Saturday’s Globe and Mail, Taylor wrote that there are no silver bullets to the social and economic costs caused by the platform economy. Instead, democratic governments need to decide whether their speech laws need updating for the digital world, whether to give citizens more rights over the way third parties use their personal data, and if there should be antitrust oversight over social media giants.
For their part some social media platforms are trying, using artificial intelligence and hiring thousands of people to detect suspicious and abusive content. On May 6, for example, Facebook said it had removed multiple pages, groups and accounts that were involved in coordinated inauthentic behavior on Facebook and Instagram. They were part of two unconnected operations that originated in Russia and used similar tactics, creating networks of accounts to mislead others about who they were and what they were doing, the platform said.
“We are making progress rooting out this abuse, but as we’ve said before, it’s an ongoing challenge,” Facebook said in a blog. “We’re committed to continually improving to stay ahead. That means building better technology, hiring more people and working more closely with law enforcement, security experts and other companies.”
However, many governments are thinking regulation is the answer rather than leave the private sector to clean things up. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau suggested Ottawa is leaning that way when earlier this month in Paris he said, “the platforms are failing their users, and they’re failing our citizens. They have to step up in a major way to counter misinformation, and if they don’t we will hold them to account and there will be meaningful financial consequences … We’re willing to work with the private sector …to eradicate terrorist and violent extremist content once and for all.”
However, in his column Taylor Owen noted that governments have tough decisions to make over who should be held liable for content created by others on social media platforms, and how to bring more transparency to the way advertisers target their ads.
In advance of this week’s hearings Britsh MP Damian Collins, chair of the U.K. House of Commons digital, culture, media and sport committee, said the second meeting of the International Grand Committee will continue the commitment of the first, to establish higher standards for identifying and removing harmful content on social media, including disinformation designed to disrupt our democracies, and protecting users data privacy rights.
“Parliamentarians around the world need to work together to hold these international tech giants to account, and use our legislative powers to create the best system of oversight and regulation. We cannot leave it to companies like Facebook and YouTube to police themselves. Once again, the refusal of Mark Zuckerberg to appear in front of this committee [last November in London] shows that rather than working with parliaments in different countries, he wants to turn his back on them. That will not deter us though in our work to hold these companies to account for their failings in removing harmful content and keeping people’s private data safe.”
The Grand Committee has already agreed to five principles:
- The internet is global and law relating to it must derive from globally agreed principles;
- The deliberate spreading of disinformation and division is a credible threat to the continuation and growth of democracy and a civilizing global dialogue;
- Global technology firms must recognize their great power and demonstrate their readiness to accept their great responsibility as holders of influence;
- 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;
- Technology companies must demonstrate their accountability to users by making themselves fully answerable to national legislatures and other organs of representative democracy.