Select Committee hearings on fake news

Doubts whether social media firms can help to fight fake news: K. Shanmugam

Data breach scandal shows Facebook has fallen short on transparency: Minister

Mr Simon Milner, Facebook's Asia-Pacific vice-president of public policy, appears before Singapore's Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods on March 22, 2018.
Mr Simon Milner, Facebook's Asia-Pacific vice-president of public policy, appears before Singapore's Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods on March 22, 2018.PHOTO: GOV.SG

The conduct of Facebook in the data breach involving Cambridge Analytica gives the Government reason to question whether the social network can be trusted to cooperate in the fight against online falsehoods, said Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam on Thursday (March 22).

On the fourth day of the Select Committee's hearings, representatives from Facebook as well as Twitter and Google were asked about their statements and actions, as the committee looked to their track record to determine if they will be reliable partners in countering fake news. In their submissions to the committee, the firms said there are enough laws in place to tackle the problem in Singapore, without new legislation.

Facebook vice-president of public policy for Asia-Pacific Simon Milner found himself in the hot seat, with the hearings here happening just days after revelations that political consultancy firm Cambridge Analytica had exploited the private information of 50 million Facebook users.

Dwelling for some time on this matter, Mr Shanmugam said it was his view that Facebook had fallen short of its professed standards of transparency in handling user data.

The data breach took place in 2014 and Facebook knew about it in 2015, but it was not until a few days ago that it admitted to it.

Mr Milner, who has given evidence to Parliaments in three other countries, had told British MPs last month that Cambridge Analytica did not have Facebook data.

Pointing to this, Mr Shanmugam said he should have come clean about the matter. The fact that he did not made it reasonable to conclude that Facebook had deliberately sought to mislead the British Parliament, as chair of the committee Damian Collins had suggested, the minister said.

Rejecting this characterisation vigorously, Mr Milner said he had answered truthfully based on the information he had at that point.

But he conceded that others could leave with the same impression as Mr Collins, and admitted he should have given a fuller answer in hindsight.

At one point on Thursday, Mr Milner questioned the relevance of various news articles and statements by Facebook executives he was being asked to comment on and looked to committee chairman Charles Chong to step in.

He added the overall impression created is of a firm that does not care about the problem and is not doing anything to address it, when in fact Facebook has made huge investments in the area and will double the number of people working on security to 20,000 by the year end.

"Please don't just read articles like that," he said, urging the committee to consider a more complete range of information, including the social network's paper on information operations, and comments by its chief Mark Zuckerberg.

To this, Mr Shanmugam said Facebook's conduct elsewhere and expert opinions of the firm are highly relevant in figuring out if the firm would be voluntarily helpful or if the Government would have to intervene, such as through legislation.

It was only fair for Facebook to be given the opportunity to respond, if this information could help with the Government's decision later.

He said it was his view that the company had not behaved responsibly thus far, adding that "we will have to wait and see what you do".

Mr Milner disagreed but said it was fair to hold Facebook to account: "This has been a tough Q&A, I respect that you are asking questions that need to be answered and we as a company need to be accountable to you and your colleagues and other policymakers, most importantly, the community of 2.2 billion, including some 4.1 million people here in Singapore, about how we protect their data, how we keep it secure and when things go wrong, how we tell them and you about it."

Another reason to dwell on what Facebook has done elsewhere is that online falsehoods could affect national security, and the meddling in elections in the US could well happen here, said Mr Shanmugam.

"We know our position as Singapore in the world. We are not the United States of America. If a very senior legislator in the US feels that you are not being cooperative, then how do we expect that you will cooperate with us? But these are issues that we are entitled to explore," he said.

Singapore wants technology companies to succeed and considers them partners in the fight against online falsehoods, but it did not mean the Government has to accept that their claims of what they can or have done is enough to fix the problem, he added.

Shanmugam on the relevance of his line of questioning

Here are edited extracts from the lengthy exchange between Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam and Facebook vice-president of public policy for Asia-Pacific Simon Milner.

Mr Milner: "This committee is looking into the issue of deliberate online falsehoods here in Singapore. Myself and my colleague and other people on this panel have come here prepared to answer questions about and to help the committee understand it.

"I don't think it is fair to ask me detailed questions about evidence given by my colleague to a different Parliament in a different country about activities associated with that country... I am really trying to understand why we aren't talking about the issues in Singapore, about the deliberate online falsehoods here, about what our companies are doing about this... I really respectfully suggest... if you want to get to something, get to it, and let's have other people answer some questions."

Mr Shanmugam: "The questions before the UK Parliament were very relevant in exploring the degree to which you can be trusted, Facebook can be trusted to answer questions when asked, Facebook can be trusted to be a reliable partner, that a government of Singapore can depend on Facebook to tell us the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth in proceedings where the witnesses are sworn, or whether you will do everything you can to give lawyers' answers or lawyered answers.

"As I told you earlier, one looks at the sequence of conduct from 2015 to 2018, and the very first time you accept the responsibility for Cambridge Analytica publicly, when did that happen and why did that not happen earlier?

"And to what extent can we take seriously all these protestations that you can be completely trusted to apply your internal guidelines? It is very relevant.

"And if you thought that you could turn up here today, not answer questions on Cambridge Analytica and explain your answers today with your answers less than five weeks ago to a different Parliament - we are all sovereign Parliaments, but we look at your conduct all around the world and we have to understand.

"Second, why are we looking at these answers? We are looking at our national security, the consequences we have.

"By looking at your answers elsewhere, it is clear and you have confirmed you will not decide whether something is true or false, you will not take down something simply because it is false.

"You will take it down if there is a legal obligation on you and your argument, up to very recently, through the written representations, through the public statements, through all public positions that you have taken, in essence is that you will prefer to be regulated yourself with your internal guidelines - that is my sense of it, if I am wrong, I am wrong - and that you do not want to be regulated."

Read our evidence first, says Facebook 

Mr Milner responding to Mr Shanmugam, who had asked for his comments on statements made in various articles on Facebook: 

"I agree, if you were just to read all those articles, I would be really worried about Facebook if I just read those articles.

"But please don't just read articles like that, also read our evidence, read our information operations paper, read the whole of (Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch's) evidence to that committee, read the commitments by our CEO Mark Zuckerberg... I can't imagine any reasonable person who could read all of that and conclude that we can't work with or trust this company."

Public hearings to fight online falsehoods: Read the submissions here and watch more videos.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 23, 2018, with the headline 'Doubts whether social media firms can help to fight fake news'. Subscribe