Empty seat for Mark Zuckerberg in Canadian Parliament

Shut down Facebook to force reform, former adviser tells lawmakers

Image credit: REUTERS/Chris Wattie

Addressing an international panel of lawmakers, a Facebook adviser-turned-critic has recommended that governments should be prepared to shut down social media platforms to force them to reform.

The venture capitalist and early adviser to Facebook Roger McNamee was speaking as a witness during the second meeting of the ‘International Grand Committee on Disinformation’ in Ottawa, hosted by the Canadian Parliament’s privacy and ethics committee. The committee held its inaugural meeting in London in November 2018.

The committee – made up of lawmakers from 10 countries and representing more than 400 million people – is investigating the use of social media platforms to subvert democracy through data harvesting and spreading disinformation. Facebook and other social media platforms like Twitter, YouTube and Reddit have come under scrutiny in recent years over their failure to proactively stamp out viral disinformation, hate speech, harassment, and material promoting self-harm and suicide.

The impact of social media on democracy was brought to light when US authorities found Kremlin-backed actors and bots propagating viral deceptions on social media platforms to boost the popularity of Donald Trump in the run-up to the 2016 election, and with the discovery that a UK-based consultancy, Cambridge Analytica, had been harvesting data from tens of millions of Facebook users to develop political adverting tools, which target individuals based on their psychological profiles.

Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg was called to answer questions from lawmakers in November but declined, attracting strongly worded criticism. Zuckerberg and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg were issued with a second summons to attend this week’s hearing in Ottawa, but have refused and sent junior colleagues in their place. Chair of the privacy and ethics committee Bob Zimmer has confirmed to reporters that the committee will request that the Canadian Parliament votes to hold the two executives in contempt, describing their behaviour as “abhorrent”.

“As soon as they step foot, either Mr Zuckerberg or Ms Sandberg, into our country, they will be served and expected to appear before our committee,” Zimmer said.

Neil Potts, global policy director for Facebook, who appeared before the committee with his colleague Kevin Chan, explained: “There’s been this running theme that Mr Zuckerberg and Ms Sandberg are not here because they are eschewing their duty. They have mandated and authorised Mr Chan and myself to appear for this committee to work with you all.”

This explanation was met with no less than contempt from the lawmakers present, with UK MP Jo Stevens saying: “I am sick to death of sitting through hours of platitudes from Facebook and avoidance tactics about answering questions. I want the boss here to take responsibility.”

Zuckerberg’s second refusal to appear before a panel of lawmakers representing hundreds of millions of people is indicative of his longstanding refusal to personally involve himself in highly public hearings critical of his business and to take serious action to change Facebook’s privacy-intruding business model. For instance, soon after declaring that “the future is private” at the F8 Facebook developer conference this month, it was revealed that Facebook had lobbied against an expansion of privacy laws in Australia in previous years. There is increasing sentiment among lawmakers that nothing short of regulation is necessary to hold Facebook and other companies to account, with some regulation introduced in Australia and Singapore, and regulations set to be introduced in the UK.

This week, McNamee, who recently published a book critical of Zuckerberg, called for lawmakers to take bold steps to force these companies to change their ways. As a minimum, he said that governments should put an end to the platforms’ ability to perform web-tracking and scanning communications, which he said allowed the companies to create a “high-resolution avatar” of a user which they could manipulate to click ads.

“If your goals are to protect democracy and personal liberty, you have to be bold. You have to force a radical transformation of the business model of internet platforms,” he told the committee.

“At the end of the day, the most effective path to reform would be to shut down the platforms, at least temporarily [...] any country can go first. The platforms have left you no choice. The time has come to call their bluff,” he continued. McNamee gave as an example the case of Sri Lankan authorities blocking major social media channels following bombings on three churches and three hotels in Colombo, which left hundreds dead. Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp were shut down in order to stop disinformation about the attacks spreading.

McNamee denied that big tech leaders were evil, but described them as the natural result of a laissez-faire corporate culture: “They are the products of an American business culture with few rules, where misbehaviour seldom results in punishment. Smart people take what they can get and tell themselves they earned it. They feel entitled. Consequences are someone else’s problem.”

Shoshana Zuboff, a Harvard professor and author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, also appeared as a witness to explain the data-fuelled business model of Facebook and other major online platforms. Meanwhile, fellow witness Jim Balsillie – a founder of Blackberry maker Research In Motion – warned that the tech sector could “render liberal democracy obsolete”.

“Data is not the new oil. It’s the new plutonium: amazingly powerful, dangerous when it spreads, difficult to clean up and with serious consequences when improperly used,” he said, adding that personalised political ads should be banned in the run-up to democratic events.

Facebook, Google and Microsoft have confirmed that they will comply with a Canadian initiative to attempt to protect the integrity of October’s federal election by removing fake accounts and disinformation from their platforms.

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