Global panel blasts Facebook CEO for no-show at fake news hearing

A campaigner wearing a Mark Zuckerberg mask after the Facebook chief failed to attend a hearing in London on Tuesday.
A campaigner wearing a Mark Zuckerberg mask after the Facebook chief failed to attend a hearing in London on Tuesday.PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON • Officials from nine countries examining Facebook's business practices have spent weeks trying to get the company's chief executive, Mr Mark Zuckerberg, to face questions at a hearing.

On Tuesday in London, Mr Zuckerberg was represented by an empty chair.

He skipped the session, which was organised by a British committee investigating Facebook and the spread of misinformation.

In Mr Zuckerberg's absence, officials spent more than three hours grilling a Facebook executive who stood in for him, criticising the company's influence on democracy, its distribution of false news and its use of sensitive user data.

"You have lost the trust of the international community," said Mr Charlie Angus, an official representing Canada. He was joined by policymakers from Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Britain, France, Ireland, Latvia and Singapore.

Singapore was represented by Senior Minister of State for Law and Health Edwin Tong, as well as MPs Sun Xueling and Pritam Singh. The trio are members of the Republic's Parliamentary Select Committee tasked to find ways to combat online falsehoods.

The hearing in London was built up by panel members as a moment of international accountability for Facebook. While the panel has no authority to impose laws or fines, it was a rare collaboration to investigate a company that is facing scrutiny after revelations about privacy breaches and its role in spreading propaganda and fomenting ethnic strife.

A TELLING ABSENCE

We don't have Mr Zuckerberg here today, which is incredibly unfortunate and I think speaks to a failure to account for the loss of trust certainly across the world.

MR NATHANIEL ERSKINE-SMITH, a Canadian official.

Anticipation had built in recent days after the British official who called the hearing, Mr Damian Collins, hinted that he might also release secret internal Facebook documents. The documents were originally uncovered during a California lawsuit over data sharing between Facebook and the maker of an app called Six4Three, and are under seal in the US.

But Mr Collins did not release the documents on Tuesday, saying he needed more time to go through them. That left most of the hearing's spotlight on Mr Richard Allan, vice-president for policy solutions at Facebook, who attended the session in place of Mr Zuckerberg and sat next to the empty seat left for his boss.

Mr Allan, also a member of the British House of Lords, said Facebook accepted a need for new regulation, without specifying which policies it would support. "We have damaged public trust through some of the actions we've taken," said Mr Allan, who later repeated variations of the same apology.

He added: "There were things that we missed that we were either not sufficiently focused on or too slow to react to."

But policymakers at the hearing were less than satisfied. Several brought up Mr Zuckerberg's no-show. "We don't have Mr Zuckerberg here today, which is incredibly unfortunate and I think speaks to a failure to account for the loss of trust certainly across the world," said Mr Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, another Canadian official.

 

Others called for tougher regulations, including one member who suggested it was time to break up Facebook, which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp.

Mr Collins weighed in by referring to information in some of the internal Facebook documents that he obtained, including a 2014 e-mail from a Facebook engineer who had raised questions about access to the platform coming from Russia. The issue is sensitive since Russia used Facebook to manipulate US voters during the 2016 presidential election.

In a statement on Tuesday, Facebook said that "the engineer who had flagged those initial concerns subsequently looked into this further and found no evidence of specific Russian activity".

Mr Collins said he hoped to release the cache of internal Facebook documents within the "next week or so".

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 29, 2018, with the headline 'Global panel blasts Facebook CEO for no-show at fake news hearing'. Print Edition | Subscribe