Facebook won’t be able to catch all bad actors influencing the 2019 Canadian election on its platform, and can’t guarantee there won’t be cheating on its website during the campaign, a senior company representative admitted Tuesday.
Richard Allan, vice president of policy solutions at Facebook, made the startling comments to Canadian MP Bob Zimmer during a historic “grand committee” meeting in the United Kingdom involving representatives from nine countries — all investigating fake news and disinformation on the social network.
The comments provoked Canadian Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould to issue a warning to the company that it should "take every necessary step to fix the issues" that has seen its platform subverted for political ends.
“You will have an election in Canada next year. There will be problems, there will be people who cheat and work around the system. But we will catch most of them, and our goal is that the Canadian election should not be seen to have been unduly influenced by online activity through our platform," Allan said.
“We share, absolutely, that goal. We are making the investments. We can’t guarantee that there will not be instances where there are people who cheat that we catch and have to take down during the campaign, and we’d love to work with you and the authorities in your countries on getting better at identifying those people and taking them down.”
Zimmer, a Conservative MP, is the chair of Canada’s House of Commons ethics committee, which has been investigating the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal, where 622,161 Canadians and tens of millions more worldwide had their data misused.
He was joined Nov. 27 in front of the U.K.’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee by his vice-chairs, Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith and NDP MP Charlie Angus.
Gould: 'We very much expect' Facebook to act
The Trudeau government says it is taking action to protect Canadian democracy. Its electoral reform Bill C-76, it says, will demand social media companies reveal sources and funding for political advertising on their platforms.
"We very much expect Facebook to take every necessary step to fix the issues that enabled bad actors to so successfully manipulate the platform," @karinagould tells @ottawacarl #cdnpoli
Gould has also said foreign entities attempting to manipulate the results of a Canadian election would be considered a national security matter — and her government has tasked the nation’s cyber spies, the Communications Security Establishment, with monitoring disinformation campaigns online.
But critics say C-76 is toothless, relying on administrative penalties that Liberal independent Sen. Serge Joyal has said “won’t deter Russia or any other country to intervene in our election.”
And Gould herself told a Senate committee in Ottawa recently that “it would be virtually impossible to prevent foreign interference during elections” and that this has "always been a problem" in democracies.
Asked by National Observer whether Canadians should continue to trust the platform if it couldn't guarantee its security, Gould's director of communications Amy Butcher forwarded a statement from the minister that acknowledged foreign interference in elections is not new, and that social media companies affect how Canadian consume information — but also that Facebook should deal with its issues.
"While there will always be actors looking to exploit loopholes and circumvent laws, we very much expect Facebook to take every necessary step to fix the issues that enabled bad actors to so successfully manipulate the platform," said Gould.
"We will continue to seek assurances from Facebook, and other online platforms, that this work has happened as we prepare for the 2019 election. I am committed to an ongoing, constructive dialogue with social media companies and Canadians. Cyber security is a shared responsibility, one in which Canadians, governments, the media and online platforms all play a role. We must all think critically about the information we are consuming and sharing with others."
'Security is an arms race and it's never done'
Facebook continues to weather a global storm of accusations that the company was so focused on growth it overlooked red flags that its platform was being abused.
CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg not only “ignored warning signs” that Facebook could be “exploited to disrupt elections, broadcast viral propaganda and inspire deadly campaigns of hate around the globe,” they also “sought to conceal them from public view,” The New York Times reported this month.
Zuckerberg also gathered top officials earlier this year to tell them the company was “at war” and that he would be adopting an aggressive style in response, according to a Wall Street Journal report.
In Canada, Facebook has taken a series of steps to calm concerns that the next federal election, scheduled to occur on or before Oct. 21, 2019, will be overwhelmed with disinformation spread by its platform.
For example, it has launched the Canadian Election Integrity Initiative, which includes partnering with a media literacy organization, released a guide for information security, created "cyber threats crisis email line" and committed to political ad disclosure.
The company has also partnered with Agence France-Presse (AFP) news agency for third-party fact checking. Last month, CBC News profiled Louis Baudoin-Laarman, the AFP journalist who so far is the only Facebook fact-checker for Canada. Baudoin-Laarman said he wades through an estimated “300 to 2,000 posts” a day of activity that has been flagged as suspicious, and has to pick which ones to investigate.
National Observer asked Facebook Canada about why Allan said the company couldn't guarantee it can prevent all abuse of its platform, and whether Canadians should trust Facebook with their information if it can't make that guarantee. A spokesperson said the executive leadership team had spoken at length about its efforts, and pointed to July 31 comments made by Sandberg during a press call.
“Security is an arms race and it's never done. We've made it harder for inauthentic actors to operate on Facebook, yet we face determined, well-funded adversaries who won't give up and who are constantly changing tactics. That means we need to continually improve as well," Sandberg said at the time.
"We're investing heavily in security so we can find and address these kind of threats. We’ve improved our (artificial intelligence) so that we can more effectively detect and block fake accounts. We now demote fake news and we’ve introduced greater accountability for advertisers and page administrators.
"We're also working much more closely with law enforcement, other tech companies, and research organizations like the Atlantic Council to better understand the threats we face so we can take action to address them."
'Frat boy billionaires from California'
All three Canadian MPs appeared unimpressed with the fact that Zuckerberg himself didn’t appear before the “grand committee” — despite, as Zimmer noted, the fact that those in the room represented over 400 million people, including 36 million Canadians — 23 million of whom are Facebook users.
Angus, who led off the committee questioning, went straight to the heart of the matter, asking Allan who it was that gave Zuckerberg the advice to ignore the committee, as he expressed “how deeply disappointed we are about Mark Zuckerberg to ignore the summons from so many different nations.”
“The Westminster tradition has seen many threats, and bumps and bruises over the centuries, but we’ve never seen anything quite like Facebook, where — while we were playing on our phones and apps — our democratic institutions, our form of civil conversation, seem to have been upended by frat boy billionaires from California,” Angus said.
“I put it to you that you have lost the trust of the international community to self-police.”
Erskine-Smith said Zuckerberg’s absence was “incredibly unfortunate” and “speaks to a failure to account for the loss of trust certainly across the globe with respect to Facebook.”
“In the Canadian context it wasn’t until recently that you started to notify Canadian users that their information was shared in the Cambridge Analytica context,” he said. “That sense of corporate social responsibility — particularly in light of the immense power and profit of Facebook — has been as empty as the chair beside you.”
'Canadian law requires meaningful consent'
The Toronto-area MP also told the committee of a 2009 finding by Canada’s federal privacy commissioner that “the sharing of personal information with third-party developers creating Facebook applications such as games and quizzes raises serious privacy risks.” He asked Allan why this wasn’t addressed until years later.
“Our understanding was that this was not illegal,” Allan responded.
“Oh, okay, great. I’m glad you said that,” Erskine-Smith shot back. “Because Canadian law requires meaningful consent...the fact that I have failed to go into my privacy settings and check a box, (does that mean) I have given meaningful consent to Facebook to allow you to share that information? Is that your view of the law?”
Yes, Allen responded. “Our view is, when you signed up for Facebook, we were sufficiently clear that part of the package of signing up for Facebook, was it’s a social experience. The clue is in the title — social network,” he said.
Erskine-Smith also quoted Facebook's response to The New York Times article, that “this has been a tough time at Facebook” and management has been focused on tackling the issue and protecting “our community from bad actors.”
“Has it occurred to you that in relation to privacy, Facebook might be becoming one of these bad actors?” he asked. “I don’t believe we are,” Allan responded.
MPs seized Facebook documents
Committee head Damian Collins said this is the first time multiple parliaments have joined together for a U.K. House of Commons hearing since 1933. It included representatives from Canada, the U.K., Argentina, France, Singapore, Ireland, Belgium, Brazil and Latvia. “I think the fact that this meeting is taking place with representatives from right across the globe shows just how seriously we take these issues,” said Collins.
The committee heard evidence Tuesday that entities with Russian internet addresses were exploiting Facebook’s platform to vacuum up large amounts of user data through a third-party interface as far back as 2014, and that an engineer at the company had alerted officials.
Collins said he had obtained this information as a result of an internal company email. In a dramatic move, the committee had recently seized a cache of documents from a businessman visiting London under U.K. parliamentary powers. The documents were originally unearthed as part of legal discovery in a lawsuit against Facebook in California.
“Did they notify external agencies of this activity?” Collins asked Allen about the engineer’s finding in 2014. “Because if Russian IP addresses were pulling down a huge amount of data from the platform, was that reported or was that just kept — as so often seems to be the case — within the family and not talked about?”
Allan responded that the information seized was “at best partial and at worst potentially misleading.” Facebook officials have subsequently told media that the email was taken out of context, and that engineers had looked into the issue and “found no evidence of specific Russian activity.”