Politics

Facebook's Zuckerberg summoned to appear before session of U.K., Canadian politicians

The British government has announced an unprecedented "international grand committee" on disinformation and fake news, with a summons for Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg to appear.

Zuckerberg can't be forced to appear, but pressure may rise on Facebook chief executive

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a House hearing Washington on April 11. He has appeared before U.S. and European lawmakers to answer questions about data privacy and election-related exploitation of the service, but not in British or Canadian Parliaments. (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)

The British government announced on Tuesday an unprecedented "international grand committee" involving Canadian politicians concerning disinformation and fake news, with a summons for Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg to appear.

British MP Damian Collins released the open letter Tuesday, also signed by Canadian Conservative MP Bob Zimmer, asking Zuckerberg to appear Nov. 27 at Britain's House of Commons.

The committee session is being held to scrutinize digital policy and for Facebook to "give an accurate account of recent failures of process, including the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal and subsequent data breaches."

Collins said in a subsequent video posted to social media that "the fact we're doing it shows just how serious we believe these issues are to our inquiry but also to the future of our democracy and the future of people's data rights."

Zimmer, the chair of the Canadian Commons committee on access to information, privacy, and ethics, and Liberal MP Nathan Erskine-Smith of Toronto, the vice-chair, are among the Canadians scheduled to attend.

"We have asked Mr. Zuckerberg to appear at our committees several times and expect him to show respect for both of our great nations by appearing at this hearing to answer for his platform's practices," said Zimmer.

Zuckerberg appeared before a U.S. Congress panel in April and a month later before European Union parliamentarians, but has not appeared before British or Canadian lawmakers.

British MP Damian Collins is chair of the government's digital, culture, media and sport committee. Britain has grappled with questions over the misuse of Facebook user data in the Brexit campaign over two years ago. (Peter Nicholls/Reuters)

Facebook sent its deputy privacy officer and head of public policy in Canada to a House of Commons privacy committee hearing in April, where they offered apologies for allowing third parties to have access to the Facebook data of Canadians without their consent. The number with respect to the Cambridge Analytica data harvesting is estimated at over 600,000 Canadians.

That meeting in Ottawa left NDP MP Charlie Angus, among others, unimpressed.

"Thank God Facebook doesn't build bridges, thank God they don't look after your savings," Angus told CBC's Power and Politics. "I was shocked today how dodgy they were."

'I was shocked by how dodgy they were,' says vice-chair Charlie Angus. 9:14

The Conservative MP Collins took Zuckerberg to task for not appearing yet in Britain. Facebook's chief technology officer was dispatched to answer questions at Westminster in the spring.

"We would have thought that this responsibility is something that you would want to take up," said Collins, the chair of Britain's digital and media committee.

"We both plan to issue final reports on this issue by the end of this December 2018. The hearing of your evidence is now overdue, and urgent."

Many Canadian questions

Collins predicted after the Zuckerberg no-show in Britain that a summons might be issued. It has been used in Britain in the past — for example, to ask News Corp. chief executive Rupert Murdoch to appear at a 2011 session concerning the country's phone hacking scandal involving employees of his media companies.

The summons carries no formal authority behind it to force someone to appear — just the public pressure that may result.

With Canada holding a federal election in 2019, there are doubts the country is prepared for the potential of propaganda and disinformation from outside actors or trolls intended to roil the campaign, or with respect to the third-party abuse of data and advertising in the next election.

"My concerns … are focused to the greatest extent on third-party interference as we saw in Brexit, as we have seen in the United States and as we have heard happened in Canada in 2015 with regard to the creation of a number of third-party campaigners with particular political objectives," said Conservative Peter Kent at a House of Commons committee on access to information, privacy and ethics on Tuesday.

B.C. native Christopher Wylie was the whistleblower who alleged that Cambridge Analytica had harvested Facebook data without users' knowledge, for political exploitation. (Alastair Grant/Associated Press)

There are significant Canadian angles in the Cambridge Analytica saga.

Former Cambridge employee Chris Wylie, a B.C. native, blew the whistle on the privacy abuse, alleging the consulting firm firm had access to data from more than 80 million Facebook profiles globally. Wylie alleged the firm gained access to the information through a generic quiz app that was developed for Facebook users.

B.C. company Aggregate IQ (AIQ) has been accused of accessing the Cambridge Analytica data after Wylie says he reached out to the software company.

"When I became research director for SCL [the parent company of Cambridge Analytica] we needed to rapidly expand our technical capacity and I reached out to a lot of people I had worked with in the past," Wylie told Britain's Observer newspaper.

It has been alleged that AIQ created Ripon, a data mining platform for Cambridge Analytica used by a campaign to promote British independence from the European Union and for the presidential campaigns of Ted Cruz and then Donald Trump.

Soon after the Cambridge Analytica scandal emerged, Conservative MP Bob Zimmer was seeking data preservation requests for Cambridge Analytica, SCL, and AggregateIQ. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

AIQ has denied Wylie's allegations that they worked for Cambridge Analytica.

While Cambridge Analytica no longer exists as a company, Business Insider reported in March the incorporation in New York of Emerdata, a company in which former Cambridge chief executive Alexander Nix is listed as a director and the board members include Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah, Republican power brokers who helped bankroll the Cruz campaign's data efforts.

Google, Twitter also examined

Zuckerberg apologized to U.S. lawmakers for not doing enough to prevent its platform from being used for harm during the 2016 presidential election but said Facebook has since then made changes to better root out fake accounts and protect user data.

Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers have floated possible regulation of Facebook and other tech companies in the U.S. amid privacy scandals and Russian intervention on social media, which has led to several indictments issued by the special counsel probe investigating, in part, foreign interference into the last presidential election.

Facebook has appeared more vigilant as the U.S. midterms approach, with splashy announcements in July and October informing the public of the removal of malignant accounts looking to influence voters. The company also said last month it would ban false information about voting requirements and fact-check fake reports of violence or long lines at American polling stations ahead of the Nov. 6 vote.

But the company is still plagued by questions surrounding data privacy. It was revealed in recent weeks that up to 29 million accounts were hacked in a data breach in which significant biographical information about users was compromised.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was grilled by U.S. senators over his company's privacy concerns, facing tough questions about how Facebook collects and uses data. 6:28

Facebook, which has yet to respond to Wednesday's letter, is not the only tech company on the hotseat.

After Facebook's chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey appeared before a U.S. Senate intelligence committee hearing in September, several senators, including Democratic vice-chair Mark Warner, blasted Google for not appearing to answer questions on how "absurd conspiracy theories" and foreign influence attempts surface high in search engine results or in the company's YouTube algorithms.

With files from The Associated Press