Facebook's Zuckerberg, Sandberg won't appear before committee, could be found in contempt of Parliament

Canadian MPs are warning that Facebook's top officials could be found in contempt of Parliament if they continue to ignore a subpoena to testify in Ottawa this week, as representatives for the company confirmed Monday that founder Mark Zuckerberg and chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg would not attend.

Canada has asked them to appear before international elected officials this week to discuss tech and privacy

Parliament's ethics committee voted to subpoena Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, pictured in April 20118 at a U.S.House of Representatives hearing, and chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg to testify before an international committee of parliamentarians meeting in Ottawa this week. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Canadian MPs are warning that Facebook's top officials could be found in contempt of Parliament if they continue to ignore a subpoena to testify in Ottawa this week, as company representatives confirmed Monday that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg would not attend.

Starting today, the House of Commons's privacy and ethics committee will be joined by elected officials from around the world to discuss data collection, privacy online and democracy and to question witnesses.

The committee had extended invitations to some of the most well-known tech players, including Facebook, Twitter and Google. Earlier this month, the committee voted to subpoena Zuckerberg and Sandberg to appear as witnesses.

Kevin Chan, head of public policy for Facebook Canada, told CBC News he and Neil Potts, director of public policy for Facebook, will be answering the committee's questions instead.

Conservative MP Bob Zimmer said the ethics committee has talked about finding Zuckerberg and Sandberg in contempt of Parliament if they continue to ignore the committee's summons.

"I don't think it would send a good message internationally about, you know, blowing off an entire country of 36 million people," said Zimmer, the chair of the Commons committee.

"The bottom line is that they show up and answer our questions, so my hope is that still happens."

If Zuckerberg and Sandberg are no-shows this week, the committee would first have to vote on a motion recommending a contempt finding before it could go to the floor of the House of Commons for a vote.

Finding someone guilty of contempt of Parliament is a rare move in Canada.

A study by the Library of Parliament found that, while "allegations of contemptuous behaviour are made frequently, findings of contempt are unusual."

Also, while the House of Commons has a range of penalties to punish contempt, a "finding of contempt is often considered sufficient in itself," notes the library.

Symbolic messaging

Even if it's only a symbolic finding, it could send a message, said NDP MP and committee vice-chair Charlie Angus.

"If they believe that Canadian lawmakers are so inconsequential, then that is contempt of Parliament," said Angus.

"You have a company that acts with complete disregard for the democratic systems that we've put in place … To me, that's just unbelievable that a company could be that dismissive. And I think they have to be held accountable."

Conservative MP Bob Zimmer, pictured in the House of Commons in January 2018, said the ethics committee has talked about finding Facebook's main players in contempt of Parliament if they don't show up. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Liberal MP Michel Picard, another committee member, said a contempt ruling would show how seriously Canada takes the issue.

"We are not hunting companies. We are demanding as much collaboration as possible," he said.

"We need those companies to work more with us."

Zimmer said the committee hopes to come up with a communiqué at the end of their three-day session to outline best practices when it comes to protecting citizens' rights in the age of big data.

No new legislation coming

The international gathering will also discuss mounting calls to break up Facebook, said Angus. It's an idea that gained traction when Chris Hughes, who helped start Facebook with Zuckerberg, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times arguing that the $514 billion company has grown too powerful.

It's a conversation Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould said she'll be watching closely.

Last year, lawmakers from nine countries were disappointed when Zuckerberg didn't appear in front of an international hearing on disinformation in Britain's Parliament. (Gabriel Sainhas/House of Commons/The Associated Press)

"The rest of the world is starting to think about this as well, because I'm not sure if there's been a time in history when so few companies were really responsible for so much of the activity that we do every single day, from shopping to banking to searching for information to communicating with others," she said.

Along with Canadian MPs, the grand committee is made up of politicians from the United Kingdom, Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, France, Ireland, Latvia, Singapore. Ecuador, Mexico, Morocco and Trinidad and Tobago.

Representatives of Facebook, Twitter, Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Apple are all slotted to appear, but so far the witness list says only, "To be determined."

Among those who have already agreed to appear at the grand committee are Jim Balsillie, former chief executive of Blackberry, Ellen Weintraub, chair of the U.S. Federal Election Commission, and Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien.

It'll be the second time the international coalition has met. They gathered last year in the U.K.; Zuckerberg did not show up for that gathering either.

This week's meetings come days after Ottawa laid out its digital charter, a list of principles to guide an overhaul of Canada's laws governing the internet and digital privacy.

However, Gould said no legislation is coming until after the next election.

"I think we've run out of runway with regards to legislating before the House rises in June," she said.

Last month, Therrien  announced plans to take Facebook to Federal Court after finding Facebook had violated Canada's privacy law by sharing the personal information of Canadian Facebook users in the course of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Facebook has disputed the report's findings.

Cambridge Analytica is accused of harvesting data of more than 50 million Facebook users worldwide to create social media strategies to support U.S. President Donald Trump's 2016 election campaign.

The grand committee gathering kicks off Monday night at 7 p.m. ET.

With files from the CBC's Elizabeth Thompson and Olivia Stefanovich