Canada hits Zuckerberg with summons for failing to appear before parliament
By Mathew Ingram
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has appeared before Congress in the past, to talk about the giant social network’s role in misinformation and election-meddling, but the number of times he has appeared before a government committee is vastly outweighed by the number of times he has declined to do so. The Facebook co-founder continued that streak by failing to appear in Canada this week before an international committee that is looking into Facebook’s status as a conduit for misinformation. His second-in-command, Sheryl Sandberg, also refused to attend. As a result, the Canadian government issued an open-ended summons that requires both Zuckerberg and Sandberg to appear before Parliament should they enter Canada for any reason. If they fail to do so, they could be held in contempt.
A vote calling for Mark Zuckerberg to stand down as Facebook’s chairman is expected to take place at the company’s annual general meeting on Thursday
“He’s holding down two full-time jobs in one of the most high-profile companies in the world right now. And if he can focus on being the CEO, and let somebody else focus on being independent board chair, that would be a much better situation,” said Jonas Kron, senior vice-president at Trillium.
Even if this did come to pass, however (which would require a vote in the House of Commons), a citation for contempt doesn’t really bring with it any kind of practical sanctions. Parliament can theoretically jail someone if they are found in contempt, but this is extremely rare, which makes it mostly a formality. This week also isn’t the first time Zuckerberg has been hit with a summons: he was given one by both the UK government and the Canadian government last year, when the two started investigating the fallout from the Cambridge Analytica data scandal. The Facebook co-founder didn’t appear in either country (no contempt citations were issued). In essence, the summons and the threat of contempt are a way for the Canadian and UK governments to show how important they believe it is for the CEO of the company to appear before them, but there’s no real practical way for them to force him to do so.
The joint summons last year came as the UK, Canada, and a number of other nations were forming what they are calling an “international grand committee” to investigate the responsibility not just of Facebook but also other tech platforms such as Google, Twitter, and Amazon to address privacy and misinformation. The hearing Zuckerberg and Sandberg refused to appear at in Ottawa, the Canadian capital, was the second meeting of this grand committee. Instead of the two senior executives, the members of the committee heard fromFacebook’s policy head for Canada, Kevin Chan, as well as Neil Potts, global policy director. The appearance of the latter seemed to upset committee co-chair Bob Zimmer, a Canadian MP, who grumbled that Potts doesn’t even appear in a list of the top 100 most important Facebook executives.
In addition to representatives from Facebook, Twitter, and Google, the committee also heard testimony from a number of experts in technology and social networking, including former Research In Motion CEO Jim Balsillie, as well as Roger McNamee, a prominent Silicon Valley venture capitalist who was an early mentor to Zuckerberg and made billions of dollars by investing before Facebook went public. McNamee has since changed his mind about the company, which he refers to as “the biggest problem we have for democracy,” and has written a book about how he believes the company is changing society and human behavior for the worse (Facebook has responded to McNamee’s criticisms by saying it has “fundamentally changed how we operate” to protect the safety of users, and that McNamee “hasn’t been involved with Facebook for a decade”). Balsillie, meanwhile, told the committee that “data is not the new oil, it’s the new plutonium: amazingly powerful, dangerous when it spreads, difficult to clean up and with serious consequences when improperly used.”
Facebook and Google both signed a declaration in advance of the Ottawa hearings, saying that they would do their best to protect the integrity of the upcoming Canadian elections (Twitter didn’t sign). But Facebook has also stuck to its guns on the way it currently handles misinformation: for example, the company said that it won’t commit to removing false reports or “fake news” about the elections or the various campaigns. That’s similar to the approach the social network took with doctored videos of US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, which were modified to make it appear that she was drunk or senile. It didn’t take the videos down, but said it would prevent them from showing up as highly in the News Feed and added a note that they were “the subject of further reporting,” a decision that was widely criticized.