Wednesday 26 June 2019

Steve Dempsey: 'Big tech sticks on its out-of-office when politicians come calling'

'Despite his eagerness to talk to legislators, Facebook's CEO couldn't make it.' Stock image
'Despite his eagerness to talk to legislators, Facebook's CEO couldn't make it.' Stock image
Steve Dempsey

Steve Dempsey

Two months ago, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post. In it he stated that four troublesome issues - harmful content, election integrity, privacy and data portability - were proving too hot to handle for Facebook. "I'm looking forward to discussing them with lawmakers around the world," Zuckerberg wrote.

This week he got his first opportunity to do just that when the Canadian government invited him to testify before an international committee examining Facebook's role in spreading misinformation. Despite his eagerness to talk to legislators, Facebook's CEO couldn't make it. Neither could chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg.

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Instead, two less high-profile executives answered the call. Kevin Chan, Facebook's public policy director for Canada, and Neil Potts, the company's global public policy director, showed up. "Mark and Sheryl, our CEO and COO, are committed to working with government in a responsible manner. They feel that we have their mandate to be here today before you to engage on these topics," Potts stated with admirable conviction. The committee was not impressed.

But they weren't surprised. It's not the first time this has happened. Last November, when Zuckerberg didn't show up to a hearing of the same international parliamentary group in the UK, Richard Allan, Facebook's vice-president of policy solutions, also a member of the House of Lords, had the good grace to admit that Zuck's non-attendance was "not great".

British MP Damian Collins, co-chair of the committee, went a little further this week. "Mark Zuckerberg's persistent refusal to appear in front of this committee shows he does not want to be held to account for the record of his company, nor even to engage openly in the debate about the future regulation and oversight we need in this sector," he said.

But let's be fair. Top brass from companies other than Facebook stayed at home too. The committee also invited Google's Sundar Pichai and Eric Schmidt, Apple's Tim Cook, Jeff Bezos from Amazon, Jack Dorsey from Twitter and Evan Spiegel from Snap. None of them turned up to engage with the elected representatives. Snap and WhatsApp didn't even bother sending any executives at all. So what was discussed? Well, many companies welcomed further regulation. Google called for greater international co-operation, standardised definitions of unlawful content and proportionate penalties for non-compliance.

Jim Balsillie, retired co-CEO of Research In Motion and chair of Canada's Centre for International Governance Innovation, had all the best lines: social media's toxicity is not a bug - it's a feature; the online advertisement-driven business model subverts choice and represents a foundational threat to markets, election integrity and democracy itself; data is not the new oil - it's the new plutonium.

He also recommended CEOs and directors are made legally responsibility for activity on their platforms. "As a businessman, I can assure you when a senior executive or board member must affix their name to a document that has personal liability, this immediately changes behaviour to one of greater prudence and caution," he said.

But, as ever, Facebook was the main s**t-magnet. It drew the ire of the legislators for refusal to remove doctored videos of Nancy Pelosi, refusal to share details of its algorithms, implications of back-end mergers of WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook, and, of course, the Cambridge Analytica scandal and when senior management became aware of the scale of the data harvesting.

It's telling that Facebook seems so unwilling to engage with this particular group of international parliamentarians, which includes legislators from the UK, Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, France, Latvia, Singapore and Ireland. Collectively this committee represents more than 400 million people. Perhaps such a motley crew of legislators is too unruly for Facebook. That is, highly paid lobbyists would find it hard to exert the levels of influence Facebook can expect in the US. If that's the case, Zuckerberg would be better advised to pay lip-service to the idea of engaging with legislators in the US only.

"This week saw further advances in our efforts to ensure people's data is kept secure and that users of social media can do so safely," said Hildegarde Naughton, who was at the hearing as chair of the Oireachtas Committee on Communications, Climate Action and the Environment. "We will meet again in Dublin in November when we will discuss these issues and our global efforts to protect free speech while ensuring our democratic processes are free from malign outside influences."

So, we'll see you in Dublin in November, Mark? Yeah, I wouldn't count on it.

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