Facebook on Tuesday faced a fresh lashing from regulators representing Canada, France, the United Kingdom and six other countries for the social-networking giant’s inability to stop the spread of misinformation online and protect its users' personal data.
The series of rebukes — delivered at a rare joint hearing featuring policymakers around the world — reflected the vast magnitude of growing global unease with Facebook’s business practices and mounting frustration with the company’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, who declined to appear in front of lawmakers and address those criticisms directly.
"While we were playing on our phones and apps, our democratic institutions, our form of civil conversation, seem to have been upended by frat boy billionaires from California,” said Charlie Angus, the vice chair of a top privacy committee in Canada, who criticized Zuckerberg for his decision to “blow off” the hearing.
“I put it to you that you have lost the trust of the international community to self-police,” Angus continued, “and we have to start looking at a method for holding [Facebook] accountable.”
Damian Collins, a member of the U.K. House of Commons who convened and chaired the hearing, lamented a “consistent pattern of Facebook failing to disclose” critical information to regulators. He pointed to newly obtained evidence, including an unreleased document that may show Facebook data was vulnerable to Russian actors in 2014, as he asked the company: “Can you not see this has caused a massive breach of trust?"
Appearing in Zuckerberg’s place was Richard Allan, Facebook’s vice president of policy solutions. Immediately under siege from the legislators, Allan at one point acknowledged that Facebook had “damaged public trust by some of the actions we’ve taken.” Asked how Zuckerberg’s absence might appear, though, Allan later said it was “not great.”
Joining the U.K. were legislators from Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, France, Ireland, Latvia and Singapore. The nine countries in total represent more than 446 million people -- and have grappled firsthand with the real-world consequences of social media’s digital ills. Some, including Brazil, have confronted the rapid proliferation of falsehoods around national elections on both Facebook and its messaging service, WhatsApp. Others belong to the European Union, which has threatened even further, tougher regulation of the way Silicon Valley tech giants collect private data and police their platforms for abuse.
“We recognize we are doing something new,” Allan said in response Tuesday. “There were things we missed, that we were either not sufficiently focused on or too slow to react to.”
Later Tuesday, the nine countries are expected to sign a set of “International Principles for the Law Governing the Internet,” they said last week, signaling even greater scrutiny of Facebook and other social media companies still to come.
In the United States, meanwhile, senators are preparing to hold a hearing of their own — grilling members of the Federal Trade Commission, the agency that’s currently investigating Facebook for its privacy mishaps, later Tuesday.
For months, Zuckerberg has resisted testifying in the U.K. as members of Parliament probe the spread of misinformation and the role played by political consultancy Cambridge Analytica around Britain’s vote to withdraw from the European Union. The firm had improperly accessed data on millions of Facebook users, prompting U.K. regulators to fine Facebook earlier this year for the security lapse, though the company has said it intends to appeal.
But concerns about political manipulation on social media — particularly during national elections — have gone global. Countries including Argentina, Brazil, Canada and Singapore began in October to add their voices to the U.K.'s calls for Zuckerberg to testify. Repeatedly, though, Facebook said its top executive was unable to appear, only opting earlier this month to send Allan, a former member of British parliament, in his place.
Those legislators came to the hearing Tuesday -- the first such joint session hosted by the House of Commons since 1933 -- incensed and armed with a litany of complaints. Many countries expressed fear that Facebook remains ill-equipped to battle back foreign actors, including Russian agents, that seek to manipulate elections. British policymakers took issue with reports about Facebook’s political activities to battle back regulators in the United States. And one lawmaker from Canada suggested taking apart the social network and the services it owns, including WhatsApp and the photo-sharing service Instagram.
“Perhaps the best regulation is antitrust,” Angus said. “Perhaps the simplest form of regulation would be to break Facebook up or treat it as a utility.”
For representatives from Singapore, meanwhile, the chief source of frustration was Facebook’s inconsistent approach to hate speech and its ability to trigger real-world violence. One member from the country’s parliament, Edwin Tong, referenced a post that went viral in Sri Lanka that called for killing Muslims.
“If it’s not down, it should be,” Allan told Tong before the lawmaker revealed a communication from Facebook saying the post in question did not actually violate the company’s policies.
Adding to Facebook’s woes were a trove of documents obtained by British lawmakers last week that — if released — could call its privacy protections into further question.
The materials came from Six4Three, an app company that has sued Facebook in California for changes to its policies in 2015 that limited its ability to access data it needed to function. In the United States, a judge has shielded those documents from public view by placing them under seal. But U.K. legislators led by Collins obtained them after the founder of Six4Three traveled to London last week.
On Tuesday, Collins pointed to a communication from the newly acquired trove that appeared to show a Facebook employee in 2014 had found suspicious activity with potential Russian ties trying to capture large swaths of data on the site. In response, Allan said at the hearing that the documents generally are “potentially misleading.”
A spokesperson for Collins declined to elaborate on the document, and Facebook said in a later statement that it “found no evidence of specific Russian activity.”