Analysis

MPs call Facebook on the carpet to answer a question: can it be trusted?

It was a chance for MPs to express their concern and an opportunity for Facebook to insist it's taking responsibility. But whatever emotional satisfaction came of putting the social platform in the witness chair, much ultimately depends on what MPs and the government do next.

'We recognize that in the past we have been too idealistic,' says Facebook executive

Kevin Chan, the head of public policy for Facebook in Canada, offered little explanation as to why the company waited two years to tell users privacy had been breached. (CBC News)

After introducing the two witnesses from Facebook on Thursday, the chair of the privacy committee lamented the fact that neither of them was Mark Zuckerberg.

"I think we were, and myself as chair, disappointed that Mr. Zuckerberg declined our request," Conservative MP Bob Zimmer said with a sigh. "And I'd say we don't take that lightly."

"Our CEO does apologize that he could not be here today in person with the committee," replied Kevin Chan, director of public policy for Facebook's Canadian division.

It was certainly a setback for the privacy committee's profile and TV ratings.

In fairness to Facebook's creator, you have to acknowledge that if he were expected to attend hearings in every country where people worry about the influence and power of his platform, he'd never have time to do anything else — a world tour of regrets and reassurance.

NDP MP Charlie Angus, wearing a maroon suit and grey vest, still joked that he had "dressed up" to be in the presence of "the world's most powerful company."

Unlike Congress in the United States — where Zuckerberg appeared for two closely-watched hearings last week — the House of Commons does not have a rich tradition of calling corporate titans on the carpet.

But the Cambridge Analytica scandal — with its Canadian whistleblower and the purported involvement of a Canadian tech company — was enough to convince the House committee on ethics, access to information and privacy to launch hearings.

So Thursday's hearing was a chance for MPs to express their concern and an opportunity for Facebook's executives to insist they are taking responsibility.

"We recognize that in the past we have been too idealistic about how our technologies were being used," Chan said.

But whatever emotional satisfaction came from putting the social platform in the witness chair, and whatever bits of new information might be teased out from that, much depends on what MPs and the government choose to do next.

Chan appeared at the Commons Ethics committee and then when he left he declined the common practice of speaking to reporters 1:54

'The power of Facebook'

"The power of Facebook to do good is incredible," Angus said, pointing to how the platform has helped connect people in his vast northern riding.

"But we are here because the power for Facebook to be misused, to do terrible things, is also at issue. And the question before us is the failure of Facebook to respect the absolute power it has."

Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith performed like the former lawyer he is, narrowing in on a challenging question: did the sharing of friends' data — which happened in the case of Cambridge Analytica and an app called "thisisyourdigitallife" — violate Canada's Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA)?

"In terms of our legislation in Canada, which requires consent ... where was the consent of 620,000 users?" Erskine-Smith asked.

"With regard to the people who were using the app, our data policies and our disclosures at the time were very clear that this is how the platform worked," said Rob Sherman, Facebook's deputy chief privacy officer, appearing via video link from California.

"I think it's important to note that as our changes in 2014 reflect, we don't think that's the right way for the platform to operate."

"Yeah, not only is it not an appropriate way, but it is also contrary to our law, the way you previously had designed the system," Erskine-Smith charged.

Conservative MP Peter Kent asked whether Facebook could "assure this committee that the next violation of users' privacy won't be held back for two years, as it was in this case."

"Absolutely, going forward, that is very much our intent," Chan replied.

The MPs' concerns piled up: the spread of misinformation about Canadian Forces personnel in Latvia, foreign interference in elections, the ownership and control of data, how Facebook has contributed to problems in Myanmar, whether Chan should have to register as a a lobbyist.

Angus asked about Facebook's reported movement of 1.5 billion accounts to avoid new European regulations

He challenged the executives to apply the European standards to Canadian users, then questioned whether Facebook could be counted on to regulate itself.

"The question before our committee is, is Facebook needing regulation because it cannot be trusted to do the right with the personal information?" Angus surmised.

"I think our CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, has been very clear that we do not oppose regulation," Chan replied. "I think we want the right kind of regulation."

Ontario NDP MP Charlie Angus asks Facebook executives to implement the EU's General Data Protection Regulation for Canadian users 2:38

Playing catch-up with a fast-moving technology

Of course, decisions about regulation generally aren't made by the companies that are to be regulated. Which is where MPs come in.

As Erskine-Smith noted, some federal regulation already exists. But the privacy committee also issued 19 recommendations for changes to PIPEDA in February.

That report is awaiting a government response. But the Cambridge Analytica affair could motivate either the government or the committee to go further, perhaps to emulate Europe's General Data Protection Regulation.

At some point, possibly this spring, the government will have to decide what (if any) new rules for online political activity it wants to have in place for the next election. A number of ideas were kicked around during a workshop attended by government officials in Ottawa earlier this month.

There are also calls to extend privacy laws to political parties — though it's partisans themselves who will end up making that decision.

To some extent, all this might follow the pattern of all major new technologies. A new thing is created, problems follow, messes are made, potential harms are identified, new rules are imposed.

But in this case, legislators are playing catch-up with a fast-moving invention. And it's only the privacy of our citizens and the health of our democracy hanging in the balance.

"Thank God that Facebook doesn't build bridges, because I'd never want to travel on a bridge that they built," Angus said afterwards. "And thank God they don't run banks because you'd lose all your money."

Of course, for the sake of everyone's well-being, such things are strictly regulated.

About the Author

Aaron Wherry

Parliament Hill Bureau

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail.

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