The National Today

Facebook CEO Zuckerberg conspicuously absent as data scandal grows

A deeper dive into the day's most notable stories with The National newsletter's Jonathon Gatehouse.

Newsletter: A deeper dive into the day's most notable stories

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, seen here speaking in San Francisco in 2015, hasn't posted, tweeted or issued a statement about the growing Cambridge Analytica data scandal, even as jittery markets shaved more than $37 billion US off his company's valuation. (Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)

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TODAY:

  • Mark Zuckerberg is keeping a low profile as the scandal surrounding Cambridge Analytica and its alleged misuse of data harvested from 50 million Facebook members grows.
  • Raif Badawi's family, now living in Sherbrooke, Que., are hoping rumours that the jailed Saudi blogger may soon be released are true.
  • Donald Trump's latest move against the Maduro government is a ban on any U.S. involvement in transactions using Venezuela's new cryptocurrency, the Petro.


#WheresZuck?

As the scandal surrounding Cambridge Analytica and its alleged misuse of data harvested from 50 million Facebook members grows, one important figure is conspicuously absent.

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's CEO and founder, hasn't posted, tweeted or issued a statement, even as jittery markets shaved more than $37 billion US off his company's valuation.

The hit to his personal net worth is more than $6 billion — a loss so large that it has dropped him from fourth to fifth place on the list of the world's richest people.

Zuckerberg won't be present this afternoon when Facebook holds an all-employee meeting to address the data controversy. (Jose Miguel Gomez/Reuters)
This afternoon, Facebook will hold an all-employee meeting to address the controversy, but Zuckerberg won't be in attendance. (The company's deputy general counsel will lead the session.)

And it's not like people aren't looking for him.

The chair of the U.K. Parliament's select committee on digital, culture, media and sport sent the Facebook chief a letter today requesting his personal presence, as other company executives have previously "been misleading" in their testimony about data use and privacy.

Damian Collins, chair of the U.K. Parliament's select committee on digital, culture, media and sport, sent Zuckerberg a letter Tuesday requesting his personal presence to address questions surrounding his company's protection of consumer data. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
In the U.S., some pointed criticism from Democrats and Republicans has convinced the Federal Trade Commission to launch an investigation into whether Facebook has violated a deal it made with the government about seeking users' consent when it shares their personal information.

Canada's privacy commissioner is likewise probing the company.

Although it's fair to say that Zuckerberg's immediate concern is probably the United Kingdom. Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham is seeking an emergency warrant to search Cambridge Analytica's offices and servers, after warning Facebook employees to stop their own rifling, lest they "potentially compromise a regulatory investigation."

U.K. Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham is seeking an emergency warrant to search Cambridge Analytica's offices and servers. (CBC)
The search has spawned its own hashtag, #WheresZuck.

The scandal itself has a few more trending, like #DeleteFacebook.

Zuckerberg's absence in a time of corporate crisis even has some investors calling for his head.

But perhaps the Facebook CEO's silence has something to do with his larger leadership ambitions.

Zuckerberg began 2017 by announcing his intention to visit and meet people in every U.S. state. And the fact that he did so surrounded by a group of paid political advisors and a former White House photographer fuelled suspicions that the trips to assembly lines and candy stores were less about self-improvement than laying the groundwork for a future presidential campaign.

Mark Zuckerberg on his tour of Wisconsin in April 2017. (Facebook)
Zuckerberg has denied that he's thinking about challenging for the Democratic nomination. But few believed him, especially given that he was busy restructuring Facebook so that he could retain voting control if he "served in government."

It would be no small irony if his 2020 dreams where derailed by what happened with Facebook users' data in 2016.


Adrienne Arsenault on assignment

The best compliment to pay Raif Badawi's young son Doudi is to tell him how much he looks like his father.

"I know, c'est vrai," the 13-year-old says, beaming.

But he only really knows from old pictures, like the banners that hang from City Hall in Sherbrooke, Que. "Sherbrooke est Raif," they say. And it's true — the young Saudi blogger, who has been jailed for six years in his home country, is an honorary citizen of this city even though he has never been here, has never even been to Canada.

Doudi Badawi in his family's apartment in Sherbrooke, Que. He last saw his father in Saudi Arabia when he was six. (Sylvia Thomson/CBC)
But this is where his wife and three kids settled as refugees five years ago, and Raif's cause has become Sherbrooke's concern.

And for the first time in a long time there is a whiff of hope. His supporters are latching onto a rumour that Badawi, who was jailed for blogging about a more moderate vision of Saudi Arabia, is now on a list to be released, potentially by Ramadan, which begins May 15.

Add that to the international charm offensive the Saudi Crown Prince is mounting — he is visiting Washington today — and maybe this is the moment. It's baffling to the family (and their supporters around the world) that while the Crown Prince is boasting about modernizing and moderating Saudi Arabia, the 34-year-old blogger is being jailed and lashed for dreaming of the same goals.

Sherbrooke's city hall flies two large banners that say 'Sherbrooke is Raif' and 'Raif Badawi, citizen of Sherbrooke.' Badawi's wife and three children moved to Sherbrooke in October 2013. (Radio-Canada)
It's a case being barked at the Crown Prince wherever he goes. Those who get close enough are trying to strike a balance between annoying the Prince just enough that he feels like he has to do something, and annoying him so much that Badawi somehow gets punished further.

Meanwhile, Doudi waits.

First, he waits for the phone calls.

They come with no warning, and his father is only able to speak for a few minutes at a time. His mother never lets the phone out of her sight, never lets it run out of charge. And when it rings the family runs, all vying for a few seconds of time with the ghost they love. "I want to speak, give me the telephone!" Doudi laughs, recalling how silly it all is in the moment.

Ensaf Haidar, Raif Badawi's wife, in her apartment in Sherbrooke, Que. Raif has been given honorary citizenship in this city, even though he has never been there. (Sylvia Thomson/CBC)
When they talk, it is about school and the beauty of an ordinary day for a boy.

And Doudi waits for his father's freedom.

"I want to show him my house, my school. I want to show him hockey. I want to play hockey with him. I want to show him my room …."

Maybe, someday soon, he will.

  • Watch Adrienne Arsenault's story about Raif Badawi and the struggle to set him free tonight on The National on CBC television or streamed online.

Venezuela's cryptocurrency crunch

It didn't garner as much attention as demanding the death penalty for drug dealers, but Donald Trump flexed some financial muscle yesterday, issuing a ban on Venezuela's new cryptocurrency.

The executive order prohibits any U.S. transaction, whether it be by Americans, foreigners or corporations, involving the so-called "Petro," a digital currency backed by Venezuela's oil reserves.  

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro presents the annual state of the nation report in Caracas on Jan. 15. U.S. banks have been prohibited from lending to Venezuela since last summer, and top government figures have been hit with sanctions. (Federico Parra/AFP/Getty Images)
It says the crypto-bucks are an attempt by the government of Nicolas Maduro to circumvent U.S. economic sanctions — which sounds right, since that's exactly what the Venezuelan president said when he unveiled his plans for the new currency in December.

Maduro had said that his country would issue 100 million of the digital coins, each valued at just over $59 US — the approximate market price for a barrel of the country's oil.

It's unclear what effect the U.S. ban will have.

Maduro, centre, Vice-President Tarek El Aissami, left, and Minister of Science Hugbel Roa introduced the oil-backed Petro cryptocurrency at the Presidential Palace in Caracas on Feb. 20. (Federico Parra/AFP/Getty Images)
The Petro went on pre-sale in late February, and Venezuela claimed to have sold $735 million worth in its first day.

Maduro's government now says it has raised more than $5 billion, releasing data showing it had 83,000 purchasers from 127 countries.

Although few in Venezuela, where inflation is predicted to hit 13,000 per cent this year and food shortages are the rule, are able to afford it.

A man walks past banners depicting Venezuela's currency, the Bolivar, at the Central Bank of Venezuela in Caracas. Inflation, predicted to hit 13,000 per cent this year, has made the Bolivar almost worthless, (Federico Parra/AFP/Getty Images)
The executive order is just the latest attempt by the White House to destabilize Maduro's autocratic regime and undermine his chances in the coming May presidential elections. U.S. banks have been prohibited from lending to Venezuela since last summer, and more than four dozen top government figures, including the president, have been hit with personal sanctions.

The Trump administration says the sanctions are working as planned, forcing Venezuela to default on some of its debt. And indeed, the country's Bolivar is now all but worthless — with a single U.S. dollar fetching more than 100,000 of them on the black market.

Anti-government demonstrators hold a poster during a protest against Maduro in Caracas on Aug. 12, 2017. Venezuela's presidential election is set for May 20. (Ariana Cubillos/Associated Press)
The central bank can't print enough money to keep up with inflation, and some communities are experimenting with their own currencies. The western city of Elorza, for example, has issued bills featuring a picture of its namesake, Jose Andres Elorza, a hero of the country's war of independence.

What is evident, however, is that Venezuelans are abandoning their country in vast numbers. As many as one million have moved to Colombia, Peru, Brazil and Argentina in search of work.

Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos, left, meets police officers in Cucuta on Feb. 8. Colombia has asked the International Monetary Fund to set up an emergency account to help offset the cost of absorbing the hundreds of thousands of migrants from Venezuela. (Carlo Eduardo Ramirez/Reuters)
Last week, the United Nations asked South American countries to treat the economic migrants as refugees and refrain from deporting or expelling Venezuelans, even if they have entered illegally.

Yesterday, Colombia asked the International Monetary Fund to set up an emergency account to help offset the cost of absorbing the new arrivals. The country is dealing with an influx of an estimated 600,000 Venezuelans.

The proposal will be discussed at an IMF meeting next month.


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Quote of the moment

"We're really lucky to live in a place where headlines like this could actually be news."

- Neal Gillis, the creator of @PEIheadlines, a new bot that tweets random, made-up Island "news," like "Retired MLA to release duet album with ringette coach."

Neil Gillis beside a screen displaying @PEIheadlines. (Matt Rainnie/CBC)

What The National is reading

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Today in history

March 20, 1966: Canadians react to the Munsinger affair

This Hour Has Seven Days made a lot of hay from Canada's first national sex scandal. Some were scandalized by the boundaries the show broke in its coverage -- most notably Pierre Sevigny, who rebuffed a doorstep interview attempt with blows from his cane. But this episode, featuring journalist Blair Fraser, offers a thoughtful, almost sorrowful, take on the depths to which John Diefenbaker's spy-loving cabinet had sunk. Except for one kid from Upper Canada College.

Students comment on the Munsinger affair from This Hour Has Seven Days. 6:54

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About the Author

Jonathon Gatehouse

Jonathon Gatehouse

Has covered news and politics at home and abroad, reporting from dozens of countries. He has also written extensively about sports, including seven Olympic Games and a best-selling book on the business of pro-hockey.