Members of the British Parliament left an empty chair for Mark Zuckerberg as the Facebook founder once again failed to attend a ‘fake news’ inquiry in London.
Politicians instead questioned Facebook’s European policy chief at a hearing in Westminster where questions were posed by UK lawmakers, as well as parliamentarians from Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Ireland, Latvia and Singapore.
A picture of the vacant chair was posted on the Twitter page of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, the group of British MPs leading the probe.
It read: “9 countries. 24 official representatives. 447 million people represented. One question: where is Mark Zuckerberg?”
In a damning session, Facebook was criticised by the so-called “international grand committee” of politicians for recent data breaches, the risk of electoral interference and the rampant spread of disinformation and hate speech on the platform.
However, chief among the grievances was the Facebook founder’s refusal to give evidence himself, despite repeated invitations.
Bob Zimmer, chairman of Canada’s committee on access to information, privacy and ethics, pointed to the nameplate left for Zuckerberg, and said it was an “offence to all of us in this room and, really, our citizens” for the company’s CEO not to appear.
Zimmer’s vice-chairman, Charlie Angus, added: “While we were playing on our phones and apps, our democratic institutions – our form of civil conversation – seem to have been upended by fratboy billionaires from California.”
In Zuckerberg’s absence, Richard Allan, the social network’s vice president of policy solutions, faced a grilling.
The Liberal Democrat peer and former MP - who once held the same seat as the company’s incoming communications chief, Nick Clegg, the UK’s former deputy prime minister - at one point drew gasps in an exchange over hate speech on the platform.
Singapore’s Edwin Tong highlighted a Facebook post published in Sri Lanka during a time of political unrest in the country, which proclaimed “Kill all Muslims, don’t even let an infant of the dogs escape”.
Tong pointed out that a Facebook moderator said it did not violate the network’s standards, a decision Lord Allan initially downplayed as “a mistake” before accepting the gravity of the error.
Mosques were attacked, Muslims were killed and a state of emergency was declared in Sri Lanka in March 2018, Tong added.
He asked: “Would you accept that this case illustrates that Facebook cannot be trusted to make the right assessment of what can appear on its platform?”
Lord Allan agreed that the social media giant should be held accountable.
The assorted politicians also used the day to sign a joint declaration on the ‘principles of the law governing the internet’, stressing the effects of “deliberate spreading of disinformation and division” as a “credible threat to the continuation and growth of democracy”.
The document also emphasised the “great power” and responsibilities of global technology companies, like Google and Facebook, calling for regulation and accountability to make sure they are “fully answerable to national legislatures”.
Quoting from internal Facebook emails seized from US software company Six4Three, committee chair Damian Collins said an engineer had warned “entities with Russian IP addresses” accessed “three billion data points a day”.
Lord Allan could not say whether the company knew about the alleged data access or whether relevant authorities were notified, but claimed the email cache was “at best partial, at worst potentially misleading”.
Six4Three obtained the internal Facebook emails through legal mechanisms in the US, where the company is involved in court action against the social media giant.
A Facebook spokeswoman said “the engineers who had flagged these initial concerns subsequently looked into this further and found no evidence of specific Russian activity” but offered no further clarification.
Parliament seized the emails on Sunday and Collins promised to release a redacted version of the correspondence “very soon”.
Alluding to the Six4Three emails, Labour MP Clive Efford said the committee had “seen evidence” regarding the closure of third-party apps on the network which “could not pay large sums of money for mobile advertising” and closing apps “so that Facebook can move into that area and make money”.
Lord Allan said he was “not aware” of such practices, to which MPs agreed that Zuckerberg might be able to answer their questions with more confidence.
Hildegarde Naughton, chairwoman of the Irish joint committee on communications, climate action and environment, said: “In light of the fake news and data breaches that your company has been involved in over the last two years, do you accept that Facebook needs to be regulated?”
“So … yes,” Lord Allan replied.