Regulations are on the horizon for social media platforms and other tech giants. Even though we celebrate the convenience and connectivity they’ve brought into our worlds, we also lament the scandals of data privacy and grand-scale manipulation they’ve had on our public discourse and democratic processes. One government after another has assembled committees and held hearings to figure out ways to address and fix these problems only to realize the lack of legal framework currently in place and the sweeping legislative changes that might be required. Today marked the end of a three-day session of the international grand committee on big data, privacy, and democracy, which met in Ottawa to outline the best practices to protect citizens’ data privacy rights from big tech companies.
The committee in Canada heard from experts on how governments can prevent social media companies from unauthorized use of personal information, spreading fake news, sowing division, and manipulating elections. Committee members invited representatives from Google, Twitter, Microsoft, Mozilla, Amazon, and Facebook. The meeting was hosted by the Canadian House of Commons committee on access to information, privacy, and ethics. The representatives the committee wanted from Facebook, however, caused a bit of a stir. Yesterday, Canadian lawmakers voted to issue Facebook executives Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg open-ended summons to appear before parliament the next time they enter Canada. If the two fail to honor the summons, lawmakers will hold another vote on a motion to hold them in contempt of court. If that motion is approved, it could result in jail time for the two executives. The likelihood of that happening, however, is slim. Previously, they have declined to appear before the UK parliament and other government committees around the world.
According to the Hill, Bob Zimmer, the chairman of the Committee on Access to Information, Privacy, and Ethics said, “It’s only fitting that there’s an ongoing summons, so as soon as they step foot into our country they will be served and expected to [sit in front of] our committee.”
CBC reported Zimmer also said, “I don’t think it would send a good message internationally about, you know, blowing off an entire country of 36 million people. The bottom line is that they show up and answer our questions, so my hope is that still happens.”
Committee members in Canada were quick to point out the contradiction in Zuckerberg’s attitude from an op-ed he wrote in March where he said he was looking forward to discussing these issues with lawmakers around the world. The committee itself is made up of lawmakers from more than ten countries, collectively representing about 450 million people. Facebook sent the head of public policy in Canada, Kevin Chan, and the director of public policy, Neil Potts, to attend the hearing in their place. The committee was not pleased with the alternatives because their understanding of the company’s structure is that any change is made through Zuckerberg or Sandberg. The committee unleashed a barrage of detailed criticism over Facebook’s business practices on Chan and Potts, who were separated by two empty chairs designated for the two executives.
CBC reported that Neil Potts attempted to reassure the committee that Facebook is taking the work of the members of parliament seriously, saying: “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 authorized Mr. Chan and me to appear for this committee to work with you all.”
Zimmer cut off Potts before he finished, to stress that when the committee asks two specific individuals to come, that’s exactly what they expect. “It shows a little bit of disdain from Mark Zuckerberg and Ms. Sandberg to simply choose not to come and it just shows a lack of understanding of what we do as legislators. To use you two individuals in their stead simply is not acceptable.”
Potts responded that he was not familiar with the procedures of the Canadian Parliament and what requires an appearance. Although Twitter and Google also received formal requests from Canadian Parliament earlier this month, the invitations were not necessarily directed to their top executives. Some members of parliament wondered why Zuckerberg chose to send officials in his place to deal with the lawmakers’ questions, yet will meet with world leaders elsewhere behind closed doors. The questions highlighted their skepticism over Facebook’s promise to operate more transparently than before.
In a statement on Monday, a Facebook spokesperson said, “Ultimately this is a decision for Parliament, we’re not in a position to speculate. We share the Committee’s desire to keep people safe and to hold companies like ours accountable. Right now we’re focused on engaging in meaningful dialogue with the committee… We look forward to answering their questions and remain committed to working with world leaders, governments, and industry experts to address these complex issues.”
The next day, a former Facebook advisor told lawmakers to call their bluff and shut down Facebook or other social media sites until they can be properly regulated.
According to CBC, venture capitalist Roger McNamee told the committee on Tuesday, “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.” “At the end of the day, though, 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.”
McNamee pointed to the action Sri Lanka took to turn off access to social media after the Easter Sunday attacks on hundreds of people in churches and hotels. The government said at the time the actions were taken to stop the spread of fake news reports online. McNamee said, “The people at Google and Facebook are not evil. They are the products of an American business culture with few rules, where misbehavior 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.”
He also pointed out that companies with responsible business models will emerge to fill the gap that facebook leaves. McNamee was an early investor at Facebook but now is suggesting countries ought to end these social media platforms’ abilities to surveillance their users.
British MP Jo Stevens was extremely displeased, as this was a repeat of the Zuckerberg no-show in front of the UK Parliament in London. “He wouldn’t come to answer our questions in London at our Parliament, so we have come across the Atlantic to make it easier for him. And we can only conclude that he’s frightened of scrutiny,” Stevens said. “And for the avoidance of doubt, 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.”
Kevin Chan, Canada’s Facebook Head of Public Policy said the company respects the work of the legislators and would work to comply with whatever regulations they pass, saying: “We would welcome basic standards that lawmakers can impose on the platform about what should go up and what should come down. And if lawmakers, in their wisdom, want to draw the line somewhere north or south of censorship, we would be, we would obviously [be] obliged [to follow] local law.”
In another statement after the meeting on Tuesday, a Facebook spokesperson said, “We are grateful to the Committee for the opportunity to answer their questions today and remain committed to working with world leaders, governments, and industry experts to address these complex issues. As we emphasized, we share the Committee’s desire to keep people safe and to hold companies like ours accountable.”
Both Google and Microsoft announced they support an initiative to protect the integrity of the Canadian election this fall, which includes removing fake content and fake accounts. As of tuesday morning, Twitter had not signed onto the initiative. Facebook agreed as well, committing to remove bots and fake accounts. The measures are outlined in a non-binding declaration on electoral integrity. There is a growing concern among government officials that bad actors will try to interfere with the elections.
Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould said Microsoft and facebook are set to intensify their efforts to combat disinformation and cybersecurity incidents, and have to explain their rules about accepting political advertising. She urged other platforms to follow suit in the coming days, referring to Twitter and Google.
According to Reuters, Gould said, “The Wild West online era cannot continue, inaction is not an option. Disinformation must not stand.” She added, “I think they have an absolute interest to be good actors in the Canadian democratic space, and if that is not the case then we will be coming back with stronger regulatory reforms.”
The non-binding aspect of the agreement raises questions on how they can ensure the compliance of the companies. Gould said that the public, the media, and political parties would hold these giants accountable in the short term. Getting this information out to the public is the first step in holding these platforms and our governments accountable, which is why we plan to continue our coverage on tech giants and their impending regulation.