Mark Zuckerberg sent us his cat.
That was one of the more colorful condemnations of the Facebook CEO to emerge from the International Grand Committee on Disinformation in the UK House of Commons today. It came from Nele Lijnen, member of the Committee on Infrastructure, Communications and Public Enterprises for the Belgian Government and it's a Belgian expression meaning that Zuckerberg had declined to turn up to answer questions from 24 representatives of 9 countries with a total population of 447 million people.
Representative after representative picked up on Zuckerberg’s refusal to attend the hearing. Charlie Angus, Vice-president of Canada’s House of Commons Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics, was a case in point:
Mr Zuckerberg's decision to not appear here speaks volumes...When he says that the plan was, to move fast and break things, and that breaking may have involved our democratic institutions, does he not think or not believe that Parliamentarians will push back?'
Standing in for the absent CEO was Richard Allan, EMEA Vice President for Policy Solutions, the third Facebook exec to be a Zuck-alike in front of the UK’s Select Committee on Digital, Culture, Media and Sports inquiry, of which today’s session was an extension.
Frankly Allan may have fared slightly better than his predecessors, but not that much. The by now all too familiar party line of ‘I’ll have to come back to you on that’ or ‘I don’t have that information here’ was trotted out with predictable regularity and increasing implausibility given that the topics under interrogation were scarcely a secret before the hearing.
UK MP Brendan O’Hara snapped at one point:
Were you sent because you, in the entire Facebook empire, are the best person to answer all these questions, or because you’re best placed to defend the company?
For his part, Allan pitched himself as a willing Daniel in the lion’s den who had volunteered to take the flak for his boss:
I said, ‘I believe that I have the knowledge that this group needs'. To be precise, both for the issues that you want to raise as the UK committee, and I now work on election issues globally… this is the stuff I work on. Our working assumption was that’s what you want to discuss.
It was, but the conversation didn’t really get moved on that much further. The elephant in the room of course was the DCMS Committee’s seizure of internal Facebook documents that relate to a court case in California between the firm and the developer of a ‘find a bikini’ app, Six4Three.
Facebook wants the documents returned and their contents not disclosed. Committee Chair Damian Collins maintains that Parliamentary privilege in fact allows him to publish what they say, but gave the firm some respite by saying that there was no intention to publish them…"today”.
He did however dip into their contents to provide the one big new bit of information, something that could become explosive in the months to come. Facebook has said it was unaware of Russian activity on the social network until after the 2016 US Presidential election.
But Collins revealed that the documents include an email in which:
An engineer at Facebook notified the company in 2014 that an entity with Russian IP addresses had been using an API key to pull over three billion data points a day...was that reported to any external body at the time or was that just kept, as so often seems to be the case, within the family and not talked about?
While Facebook has now stated that the issue was looked into, Allan obfuscated by characterising Six4Three as a “hostile litigant”, arguing:
Any information is at best partial, or at worst misleading…Their beef rests on us making the changes that you all want us to change. When we changed the [Facebook] API, they lost access to friends data, and they launched a series of lawsuits. Their app – I was not a user – promised to help you find photos of your friends wearing bikinis.
He also pitched a line that essentially amounted to it not being fair to disclose private information, a line that several Committee members clearly found ironic. Nonetheless Allan tried:
I don’t think it’s appropriate for us to share all our discussions with the public… in terms of what we did, we’ve got nothing to hide. In terms of all our internal discussions, having those treated as our company’s positions, I don’t think that’s fair.
Who knew what and when?
There were also timing questions around when Facebook learned about the data incidents that lead to the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Allan reckoned he knew about it in 2015 when the first press reports emerged, but believed that somehow the CEO of Facebook wasn’t up to speed until 2018:
We have provided written answers. My belief is that it was in March 2018, when this round of stories was published, that he learned about them.
UK MP Ian Lucas wanted to know that once Zuckerberg was up to date, what actions were taken and what were the results? Specifically he pointed to a pledge made by the CEO to the US Congress earlier this year to provide written confirmation of how many apps have since been banned.
That was one of the questions that Allan didn’t appear to have considered might be asked of him (!) So he couldn’t answer. Lucas stepped in to assist:
We still do not know of any company that was banned by Facebook on that basis.
Electoral interference was top of minds for many on the Committee Bob Zimmer, Chair of Canada’s Standing Committee, saw little sign of acceptance of responsibilities here:
What do you say to the 400 million constituents we represent that shows you’re taking this seriously? There are other bigger issues involving election campaigns … but you’re still downplaying the role that Facebook has in this situation. That’s a huge player on the global scene, and you still don’t seem to get a grasp on how much influence you have on global election campaigns.
Allan rejected the idea that Facebook wasn’t facing up to the challenges around this:
Many of the laws on political advertising were drafted pre-internet. We’ve seen many interesting developments; in Brazil, for instance, the responsibility is put on the political actor, so that they can only use services with transparency tools. To the extent that this is all clarified, and we have a simple playbook, that would be extraordinarily helpful.”
I have now tens of thousands of colleagues who are deeply committed to protecting the safety of our users. The best way that we can ensure safety is when we’re able to be very open about the problems we’re seeing; some of the problems are on our platform, and we can just throw them off, but some of them need regulation. If someone’s a threat to children, for instance, we don’t want to throw them off the platform and have them go somewhere else.
We now have a world-leading security team, who are finding those people and taking them down. We tell you, and you ask how did they get on the site. There will be problems, but we will catch most of them, and our goal is that the Canadian elections should not be unduly influenced through online activity on our platform.
But such claims and others relating to tackling hate crime, left him hostage to fortune as Edwin Tong, of the Singapore Parliament’s Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods, challenged him with a post from Sri Lanka calling for the murder of Muslims:
It was put up at a time when there were significant tensions between Sri Lankan Muslims… that eventually resulted in a state of emergency. In that context, wouldn’t such a post inflame tensions?
To make matters worse, he added, the post is still online and Facebook’s stated response has been that no policy has been breached. Allan defaulted to the standard mea culpa response that Facebook has trotted out at all such public appearances of late:
We make mistakes. Our job is to reduce the number of mistakes. We should be accountable for our mistake to you and your colleagues, to every parliament that’s sat round the table today.
There was one note of consensus between Facebook’s rep and the Committee members - that Facebook has suffered a massive loss of public trust. Allan conceded:
I’m not going to disagree with you that we have damaged public trust with some of the actions we have taken.
Asked it was time for external regulation to be increased, Allan stalled by saying that would depend on what problem was trying to be solved. That was going to get him nowhere, as Canada’s Angus retorted:
The problem is Facebook. Everything else is just a symptom.
Did it take us on much further? Not really, although the Russian email aspect hints at there being some juicy things to come from those seized documents if Collins and his committee decide to publish. There was no real expectation that Allan would answer, or be able to answer, everything asked of him. But so long as Zuckerberg continues to cower behind his underlings, there's not much alternative on offer other than grilling the latest patsy and waiting for the 'we'll come back to you' holding statements. The danger for Zuck though is that they won't hold much longer. There's an appetite for regulation in the air and he's playing into that with the positions he's taking.