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The Technology 202: Facebook executives' snub of international lawmakers carries political risks

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Facebook talks a big game about working with policymakers. But two empty chairs bearing name plates for Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg at an international committee hearing yesterday in Canada signal that the social media giant is thumbing its nose at international lawmakers.

Canadian lawmakers escalated the pressure on the executives who declined to appear in front of the international committee, which also convened legislators from countries including the United Kingdom and Singapore to establish standards to protect consumers' privacy and combat disinformation. Canadian lawmakers moved to serve a summons on Zuckerberg and Sandberg that would require them to appear before them the next time either of them steps into Canada — and if they fail to appear, the parliament could move to hold them in contempt.

Legislators from around the world blasted their absence at the hearing as “not acceptable” and a show of "disdain" for international oversight.  “Facebook, among others of the large platforms, has shown extreme disrespect and disregard for sovereign governments,” said Peter Kent, a conservative member of the Canadian parliament.

“We represent 400 million people, so when we ask those two individuals to come that's exactly what we expect,” said Bob Zimmer, who chairs the Canadian House of Commons Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics.

International lawmakers have threatened more aggressive legislation targeting social media giants than U.S. policymakers, and the executives absence only increases the political risks. If politicians feel the company's top leaders aren't taking these privacy and disinformation challenges seriously enough to testify, they could be more likely to try to bring the hammer down harder. 

International lawmakers have already shown they're prepared to regulate tech companies in the absence of action from the U.S. Congress. The European Union enacted broad privacy rules, known as the General Data Protection Regulation, which restrict technology companies' data collection practices. Now lawmakers in the United Kingdom and other countries are getting tougher on content moderation -- exploring penalties for companies that do not effectively moderate harmful content.

This is the second time in less than a year that Zuckerberg has declined to appear in front of this committee, known as the International Grand Committee on Big Data, Privacy and Democracy. In November, the international lawmakers convened in London, where they first gave Zuckerberg the empty chair treatment. 

"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," the committee's co-chair, British Member of Parliament Damian Collins said after the hearing, according to CBS News.

In the absence of Sandberg and Zuckerberg, the international committee grilled lower-level executives from Twitter, Google and Facebook, including Kevin Chan and Neil Potts, two of Facebook’s policy directors. They had wide-ranging yet pointed questions for the executives, pressing them about the company's decision to leave up a doctored video that made House Speaker Nancy Pelosi appear drunk to questions and about the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which Facebook users' data was obtained by an outside political consultancy firm without their consent. 

Chan and Potts were on the defensive, trying to convince lawmakers that the company takes these issues seriously -- even though Zuckberg and Sandberg weren't there. 

“We are grateful to the Committee for the opportunity to answer their questions today and remain committed to working with world leaders, governments, and industry experts to address these complex issues," Erin Taylor, communications manager at Facebook Canada, said in a statement following the hearing. "As we emphasized, we share the committee's desire to keep people safe and to hold companies like ours accountable.” 

To be sure, Facebook's top brass regularly engages in closed-door meetings with top international policymakers — such as Zuckerberg’s recent meetings with French President Emmanuel Macron, members of the Irish parliament and German policymakers. But the company’s top executives have been far less willing to engage in public forums and appear in front of parliaments or other legislative bodies, often preferring to send lower-level executives to those forums.

Andy Daniel, a lawmaker from Saint Lucia, said Sandberg and Zuckerberg's absences show the company is “not understanding or not realizing the very significant role that we play as parliamentarians in this situation.”


BITS: Facebook and Twitter say they disabled a broad disinformation campaign originating in Iran, including two Twitter accounts that impersonated Republican congressional candidates and may have sought to push pro-Iranian political messages, my colleague Tony Romm reports

Some of the affected accounts appeared to target specific journalists, policymakers, dissidents and other significant U.S. figures. Experts tell Tony those tactics could signal “a new escalation in social-media warfare” — with bad actors using real-world identities to blast disinformation beyond the Internet. 

Twitter removed about 2,800 accounts originating in Iran at the beginning of May — but it didn't tie the accounts to the country's government. At the same time, the cybersecurity company FireEye identified a “network of English-language social media accounts” on Twitter that frequently posted on “anti-Saudi, anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian themes."

Two of those accounts mimicked Republican Congressional candidates — Marla Livengood, who lost her bid to represent California’s 9th Congressional District, and Jineea Butler, who lost her race for a seat representing New York’s 9th Congressional District. 

Facebook said yesterday that it had removed 51 accounts, as well as 36 pages, seven groups and three accounts on Instagram, that violated its prohibition against “coordinated inauthentic behavior.” Much like Twitter, Facebook said the activity “originated in Iran." 

NIBBLES: Huawei filed a motion today in U.S. federal court to have the Trump administration's efforts to ban its equipment unconstitutional, calling the restrictions "trial by legislature" and an assault on global human rights, my colleague Anna Fifield reports

“Politicians in the U.S. are using the strength of an entire nation to come after a private company,” Song Liuping, Huawei’s chief legal officer, said Wednesday at its corporate headquarters in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen.

“They are using every tool they have, including legislative, administrative and diplomatic channels. They want to put us out of business. This is not normal,” he said. “The fact is the U.S. government has provided no evidence to show that Huawei is a security threat. There is no gun, no smoke. Only speculation.”

The motion is just the latest legal batle between the telecommunications giant and the Trump administration, which has accused the company of developing spying capacity on behalf of China's ruling Communist Party. The U.S. has also been attempting to persuade other European countries from banning the company's 5G equpment within their borders. 

BYTES: The 2016 election marked a new era in online disinformation. But there's still little consensus among poltiical strategists about the best way for candidates to approach political conspiracies, Tonya Riley reports for Mother Jones

“Bottom line, the prevalence of social media puts candidates into a position where they have to respond and be more proactive,” says Simon Maloy, a senior writer at Media Matters. “It forces them into a position of having to respond because there’s a direct path from the crazy Reddit forum, to Gateway Pundit, to Drudge, to Fox, and then the mainstream.”

Riley said most 2020 campaigns were reluctant to talk about the specific steps they were taking to address online disinformation. Of the dozen campaigns she contacted, only Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) responded with a comment. 

“Our staff is watching carefully for any signs of foreign interference, in the form of mis/disinformation or cybersecurity intrusions. If we find evidence of any such interference, against my campaign or any other, we’ll report it to the authorities promptly—unlike the Trump campaign in 2016,” according to a statement from Swalwell. 

Some campaigns also have public initiatives to fight false information. The Warren campaign has a “Fact Squad” website, which documents dozens of claims, acting as a digital resource to fact check conspiracies and propaganda about the candidate.


U up? While you're snoozing, Geoffrey Fowler reports in a column for the Post that your apps could be beaming out information about you to companies you've never even heard of. Check out his tips for limiting iPhone app tracking and some of the social media response to his investigation: 

From Salesforce chief executive Marc Benioff:

From John Bergmayer, senior counsel at Public Knowledge:


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