Organizing grand committee on Facebook crossed party lines, U.S. yet to respond to request


The list of countries attending the joint committee hearing on Facebook and disinformation has been finalized, except the United States has yet to respond, despite making “many requests,” according to the chair of the Ethics Committee.

Conservative Member of Parliament Bob Zimmer said the committee still has no idea if the U.S. intends on showing up for the meeting that is to take place at the end of the month.

“It’s very unfortunate and I’m not sure why it is. I don’t know if it’s the efforts of [Facebook] to suggest they don’t come. We just don’t know at all,” Zimmer said in a phone interview with MobileSyrup. Zimmer is the chair of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics (ETHI).

He said details of the hearing will be announced in the next four to five days. That will include the schedule and which witnesses will testify. He did note that U.S. representatives are expected to testify.

The list of countries as of now includes Argentina, Chile, France, Germany, Ireland, Latvia, Singapore, Ukraine, and the United Kingdom. That list will be changed and added onto in the coming days.

The first meeting of the committee took place on November 27th, 2018 in London, U.K. 24 officials from Britain, Canada, France, Belgium, Brazil, Ireland, Latvia, Argentina and Singapore questioned Richard Allen, Facebook’s vice-president of policy solutions.

The meeting was focused on fake news and Facebook’s involvement in election meddling. Zimmer was at the hearing with his co-chairs NDP MP Charlie Angus and Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith. That discussion will continue in Canada.

All parties worked closely to organize May meeting together

Zimmer noted that just this morning he was just chatting through email with Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee chair Damian Collins, who is also a British Conservative MP.

He said they didn’t speak every day, but it was often enough to pull the second meeting off.

“Even across party lines, all representatives in [the U.K.] and even in Ethics, we’ve all worked to the one common end of having [Facebook] respond to our questions,” he said.

“This is a testament of how you’d hope for all people out there that vote for whatever party, it’s a testament that when we get [to the House of Commons] we get here, we work together for a common goal.”

Angus echoed the sentiments in a phone interview, the MP has been a parliamentarian for 15 years and noted that it’s not very often that all parties come together united and work to accomplish a goal.

“We realized we needed to wake up and we worked across party lines right to the point of bringing witnesses; who should come,” he said. “I think the work we’ve done is extraordinary and I am proud of the report.”

Angus added that it might even be worth forming a new committee that specializes in digital issues and digital democracy “because these are issues that aren’t going to go away.”

MobileSyrup reached out to Erskine-Smith’s office, but was not able to do the interview in time for publication.

Ethics Committee sent summons to Facebook’s Zuckerberg, Sandberg

Zimmer, Angus and Erskine-Smith have been pushing for Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg to be present at the first hearing. He did not show up.

On May 7th, the Ethics Committee voted to subpoena Zuckerberg and his chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg to testify before the meeting that is scheduled for May 28th.

The vote passed unanimously. Facebook issued a statement on Wednesday saying it has sent senior company officials to testify and that it was aware of the vote and “continuing our dialogue with the committee regarding the May 28th meeting.”

The subpoena was issued a couple of weeks after Canada’s Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien released his report on Facebook. He said the social media giant had broken rules and that Canadians need to be more aware of how to protect their privacy. Therrien said there need to be more rules to help Canadians.

“Issuing summons to Mr. Zuckerberg and Ms. Sandberg was based on the privacy commissioner’s emphatic words in his report on the way Facebook has not been adhering to any advice or concerns,” Zimmer said.

Angus said that it was “shocking” for Facebook to say they didn’t believe Canada has the jurisdiction to enforce laws.

“Unless we can prove to Facebook that it meant some kind of threshold of a threat to citizens that it was acceptable to Facebook, well that’s completely wack,” Angus said. “This is a sign of a corporate culture that is growing increasingly arrogant and is connected from the fact that legislators from different countries are going to bring in stronger rules to hold them to account.”

The last time Zuckerberg appeared in front of legislative leaders was in April 2018 before the U.S. Congress.

“We’ve heard from Mr. Zuckerberg when he was in Congress talking about how they’re looking at it and they’re sorry and they’ll fix it, well it’s been two years and they haven’t fixed it. We want them to come up with solutions and how they’re going to fix the problems out there,” Zimmer said

Zuckerberg might not show up to meeting

Despite pushing the company, there is a possibility that Facebook’s co-founder might not even show up to the hearing.

Angus said during a phone interview that the “yardstick” dramatically moved internationally when the first meeting took place, and that it’s very possible that nothing will result in this parliament.

“Maybe not in this parliament, maybe it will be in the next parliament, maybe it will be in Germany, maybe in France, but we will see some steps to deal with corporate malevolence,” he said.

Government wants to regulate social media sites

Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould recently noted that the government may regulate social media platforms and that it is very likely foreign actors will attempt to interfere in the upcoming federal election.

She also added that tech giants like Facebook, Twitter and Google need to promote transparency, authenticity and integrity on their platforms better.

For its part, Facebook has launched several initiatives to combat election meddling through its platform, including a support program for politicians and an ad transparency tool. Gould has yet to release details on how she intends to regulate social media sites. Both Zimmer and Angus were concerned that nothing has been released yet.

Zimmer urged the minister to look at the 26 recommendations that were already laid out in the Ethics Committee report that was released in December.

For Zimmer, the biggest concern is making sure that people still have a platform to exercise their freedom of speech, while still keeping bullies off these platforms.

“You don’t want to completely keep people from being offended. Sometimes we say things to each other that we may not like but it should be free to say it and free to hear it in that public forum,” he said.

“We also don’t want hate speech to be something and running rampant as well,” he added, noting that it would be worth it for the minister to look at the committee’s recommendations.