Zuckerberg dodges roasting by ‘International Grand Committee on Disinformation’
In an unprecedented House of Commons hearing attended by parliamentarians from around the world, Richard Allan, Facebook’s VP for policy solutions, faced hours of questioning on Facebook’s role in spreading disinformation and its user privacy record.
The Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Select Committee has been engaged in a wide-ranging inquiry into disinformation and particularly its growth around democratic events over the past two years. Similar investigations are ongoing in other legislatures, including in the US.
In a long-awaited hearing, the Commons Committee invited their peers from around the world to form an International Grand Committee on Disinformation to question senior Facebook leadership. Due to membership of the committee being restricted to sitting MPs, the committee formally invited other parliamentarians to attend as witnesses. According to Damian Collins, chair of the DCMS committee, this was the first instance of multiple parliaments gathering at the House of Commons since 1933: “The fact that this meeting is taking place with representatives from right across the globe just shows how seriously we are taking these issues, as do our colleagues in other parliaments,” he said.
Guests representing citizens of France, Canada, Singapore, Ireland, Latvia, Belgium, Brazil and Argentina sat beside British MPs for the hearing. Leopoldo Moreau, chair of Argentina’s Freedom of Expression Commission, spoke in Spanish using an interpreter, explaining that he wanted Facebook to realise that people all around the world were facing problems associated with the platform.
Facebook VP Allan (Baron Allan of Hallam) is a former Liberal Democrat MP who now sits in the House of Lords. His attendance at the hearing in the place of Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has attracted criticism; multiple members of the committee and their international colleagues strongly expressed disappointment and anger at the failure of Zuckerberg to appear before the committee. A seat left empty beside Allan was labelled with a nameplate for the absent CEO.
Charlie Angus, vice-chair of Canada’s standing committee on access to information, privacy and ethics, demanded that Allan explain Zuckerberg’s absence before questioning Allan on recent scandals relating to Facebook, including the proliferation of misinformation and hate speech directed at Myanmar’s Rohingya population. He commented that the world’s democratic institutions appeared to have been “upended by frat-boy billionaires from California”.
“We’re not asking you to be perfect; we’re asking your company to be accountable when issues come up such as genocide, such as misinformation,” said Angus, rejecting Allan’s response. “Once again, ‘Mr Zuckerberg is looking into this’? We don’t know that Mr Zuckerberg is looking into this because once again he’s refused to show up to parliamentarians from around the world.”
“You have lost the trust of the international community to self-police and we have to start looking at a method of holding you and your company accountable because Mr Zuckerberg is not here to do the job himself.”
Allan acknowledged that some of Facebook’s actions, including its reticence to respond to public questioning, had led to some erosion of public trust.
Hildegarde Naughton, chair of Ireland’s joint committee on communications, climate action and environment, asked Allan whether he accepted that Facebook needs to be regulated “in light of the fake news and data breaches”. Allan answered in the affirmative, commenting that the best solution would be for collaboration, with Facebook’s technical experts working alongside government experts in areas such as policing and law.
Foreign representatives put forward examples of how Facebook had been used as a platform for hate speech and misinformation in their regions, including judging calls to “Kill all Muslims” to be acceptable content in Sri Lanka. Alessandro Molon, a member of Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies, spoke about how misinformation had been spread on Facebook services in the days before Brazil’s October presidential election, which was won by far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro. Molon said that fake news “has become a serious threat to modern democracy, maybe the biggest [when] boosted by the Internet”. He added that encrypted messaging app WhatsApp - which was acquired by Facebook in 2014 - had become a “mass dissemination centre for fake news” in Brazil. Argentinian representative Moreau explained that “shadowy” companies were emerging in South America, offering to spread misinformation via WhatsApp groups using lists of contact details from unknown sources.
Allan said that WhatsApp was now being built into Facebook’s “election workforce” such that the company was taking the app into consideration when working to minimise exposure to misinformation across its services. Allan added that changes in Facebook’s algorithms, paired with independent fact checking, could reduce exposure to misinformation on its public platforms. He said that it was “essential” for Facebook to work with local authorities and other figures in order to ensure that elections at every level are conducted transparently.
Committee members also questioned Allan on issues surrounding user privacy. Labour MP Ian Lucas expressed disbelief that Facebook could not name a single company banned for improperly collecting and sharing data since the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which it was revealed that a personality quiz app had been used to harvest the personal data of 87 million unknowing Facebook users to help build political advertising targeting tools.
“You’re the third Facebook person to come to our committee and you still can’t give us an example of Facebook banning someone for sharing data. You knew that app developers were sharing information and the only time you ever took action was when you were found out,” Lucas said.
Allan acknowledged that Cambridge Analytica’s use of Facebook user data was “abusive” and repeatedly promised to return to the committee with information about companies that had been banned for improper handling of data.
Facebook’s handling of user data has once again been thrown into question after the DCMS committee acquired internal Facebook documents which the company had allegedly been fighting to keep secret. The documents relate to legal action being taken against the social network by Six4Three, a company which made an app to allow users to search for photos of their contacts wearing bikinis. Although a redacted version, as the documents have not yet been made public, they are said to reveal that Facebook was aware that actors with Russian IP addresses had accessed three billion data points a day using a Pinterest API as far back as 2014.
The hearing ended on a resolute note from Angus, who dismissed Facebook’s responses as platitudinous, suggested that the company could be guilty of corporate fraud with regards to alleged deception relating to video metrics and argued that most suggested regulation so far dealt only with “symptoms”, not the problem itself.
“The problem we have with Facebook is that there’s never accountability and I put it to you that when we talk about regulation, that perhaps the best regulation would be antitrust,” Angus said. “Perhaps the simplest form of regulation would be to break Facebook up or to treat it as a utility. To allow you to gobble up every form of competition is not in the public interest. So when we talk about regulation, would you be interested in asking your friend Mr Zuckerberg if we should have a discussion about antitrust?”
Allan commented that this would depend on “the problem we’re trying to solve”, to which Angus responded that the problem was Facebook itself: “The problem is Facebook. The problem is the unprecedented economic control of every form of social discourse and communication; that is Facebook and that is the problem we need to address”.
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