There were a pair of empty chairs in a West Block committee room on May 28. The placards in front of the deliberately unoccupied chairs were to let everyone know that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg were blatantly missing in action.
The dynamic duo had been subpoenaed by the House Access to Information, Privacy, and Ethics Committee to appear before them as they hosted the three-day International Grand Committee on Big Data, Privacy and Democracy.
Mr. Zuckerberg and Ms. Sandberg did not bother to attend, or even RSVP, leaving committee members to find out through media reports that they were officially being snubbed.
Instead, Facebook sent public policy staff Kevin Chan and Neil Potts, who served to eat up time and offer talking points about why the company couldn’t, or wouldn’t, bring in the big guns to explain themselves.
This did not please the committee, which passed a motion that “on account of the refusal of Mr. Mark Zuckerberg and Ms. Sheryl Sandberg to appear before it on May 28,” directed Conservative MP Bob Zimmer, the committee chair, “to serve either or both with a formal summons should they arrive in Canada for any purpose to appear before the committee” either at the next meeting, or at a special meeting, if the House isn’t sitting.
That’s right, the committee essentially told the Facebook leaders to engage in a real-life game of Red Rover. This probably means that a summer vacation in Banff, Alta., is out of the question.
It’s a little bit jarring to see Facebook say with one side of its mouth that it’s doing everything it can to comply with Canadian direction as it pertains to democratic threats, while at the same time dodging Canadian and international officials who want clear answers.
Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould stood in the House on Monday and made a statement about efforts to keep the coming elections safe from cyber interference. She presented a new Declaration on Electoral Integrity Online, and said that both Microsoft and Facebook had already signed on in support. The declaration says that online platforms are expected to “help users to understand when and why they are seeing political advertising,” as well as “remove fake accounts and inauthentic content from their platforms.”
“Mr. Zuckerberg has stated his willingness to work with legislators but he seems to blow us off whenever it seems we want to ask him questions,” NDP MP and committee vice-chair Charlie Angus told the Canadian Press on Tuesday.
The committee still has the option of voting to recommend that the House of Commons find the pair of executives in contempt of Parliament.
Politicians lobbing questions at the Facebook representatives found themselves increasingly frustrated as Tuesday’s meeting went on, and it’s not likely that frustration is going to abate any time soon. Facebook should make a decision: either make a real effort to be a real part of the solution to the spreading of misinformation and hate, or simply stop pretending to care. No one is winning an Oscar for this act.
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