Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg should face a legal order to appear before a group of international parliamentarians studying disinformation, according to the journalist whose reporting triggered the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
Carole Cadwalladr, who writes for the British Sunday newspaper The Observer, appeared before the International Grand Committee on Disinformation and Fake News in Dublin on Thursday, and told the group of legislators that Zuckerberg had shown contempt for democracy by declining to appear.
"A single company has played a critical role in elections in so many countries but is not answerable," Cadwalladr said, adding that Zuckerberg "needs to be subpoenaed by the committee.”
Cadwalladr's reporting revealed in late 2017 that the research firm Cambridge Analytica had harvested personal data from millions of Facebook users without obtaining their consent and used it for political advertising. Her stories led to an international debate about privacy and the integrity of information on the company's platforms.
After testifying, she took to Twitter to allege Zuckerberg lied in previous testimony to the U.S. Congress.
Monika Bickert, Facebook's head of global policy management and counterterrorism, did appear before the committee, and defended the company's record, including its decision not to ban political advertising, which Twitter did last week.
Regarding the circulation of disinformation on its platforms, Bickert said it is not Facebook's job to be "truth police for the entire world."
The grand committee — which consists of members of 12 parliaments, including Canada's — held daylong meetings at the Seanad Éireann, the upper house of the Irish legislature.
One legislator who spoke said he believes social networks have a business model that benefits from creating divisive and toxic information environments.
"Facebook is probably the most toxic political platform," said Eamon Ryan, the leader of the Irish Green Party. "I'd invite you to visit my own Facebook page and see the nature of the commentary that is increasingly prevalent on the platform. It's not a community, it's war."
"The current business model is the root cause of the problems you are trying to address," Canadian entrepreneur Jim Balsillie said. "Its toxicity is unrelenting."
Bickert denied Ryan's charge and said abuse of Facebook's platforms is unrelated to its business model and that political polarization — something she called a "separate topic" — has been increasing since the 1970s.
The lone Canadian to speak to Thursday's hearing was businessman and entrepreneur Jim Balsillie — who is currently leading an expert panel on commercial innovation for the Ontario government. The former CEO of Research in Motion, now BlackBerry, also raised concerns about the business models of major Silicon Valley firms, arguing they exploit customers by turning their private data into products.
"The current business model is the root cause of the problems you are trying to address," Balsillie said. "Its toxicity is unrelenting. It is not a coding glitch that a legal patch will fix. Data at the micro-personal level gives technology unprecedented power and that’s why data is not the new oil — it’s the new plutonium."
He raised concern that, in North America, exhaustive lobbying efforts by major Silicon Valley firms contributed to Chapter 19 of the recently negotiated United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which he said includes "provisions that lock in the current advertising-driven business model and prevent lawmaker oversight of algorithms."
Balsillie also raised alarm that the Trump administration is trying to bring in similar rules globally through World Trade Organization negotiations.
He urged the committee to consider the creation of a new, international organization to work on the co-ordination and enforcement of international technology and data issues, similar to the Financial Stability Board that was created after the 2008 global financial crisis.
Meanwhile, American venture capitalist Roger McNamee, an early investor in Facebook who has since become a leading critic of the firm, told the committee that major tech companies have been resistant to regulation and legislation, and that they should be concerned about their efforts to expand into other sectors.
"Platforms have positioned themselves to replace democratic institutions, with initiatives like Sidewalk Labs’ Waterfront project in Toronto, Facebook’s Libra cryptocurrency, Amazon’s efforts in law enforcement and Microsoft’s services for governments," he said.
Ben Nimmo, a fellow at the Atlantic Council, told the committee that democratic countries should invest in deterrents and training against potential election meddling, noting that at least 70 countries are currently running social media information operations.
“The evidence suggests that a state which has the capability to run domestic information operations can quickly pivot to external targets, if the political need is there," he said. "Russia did so in 2014. Saudi Arabia did so after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. China did so when the Hong Kong protests began."