A former Facebook adviser is urging governments around the world to shut down social media platforms until they can be reformed.

“If your goals are to protect democracy and personal liberty, you have to be bold. You have to force a radical transformation of the business model of internet platforms,” venture capitalist Roger McNamee told the House of Commons privacy and ethics committee Tuesday morning.

“At the end of the day, though, the most effective path to reform would be to shut down the platforms at least temporarily. …. Any country can go first. The platforms have left you no choice. The time has come to call their bluff.”

McNamee’s comments came as an international committee of MPs in Ottawa renewed their summons for Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg and company COO Sheryl Sandberg to appear and give evidence before them. Both ignored the first summons, choosing to send company representatives in their place.

An empty chair sits behind the name tags for Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Mark Zuckerberg as the International Grand Committee on Big Data, Privacy and Democracy waits to begin in Ottawa on Tuesday. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

This week, Canadian MPs on the committee are being joined by politicians from a handful of countries around the world — including the U.K., Ireland and Germany — in trying to figure out what should and can be done to protect citizens’ privacy online and curb the spread of disinformation.

In his testimony, McNamee pointed to Sri Lanka, where authorities turned off the taps on most social media after last month’s Easter Sunday attacks on churches and hotels killed hundreds of people.

The Sri Lankan government’s official news portal said the actions, which included blocking Facebook and its WhatsApp and Instagram services, were needed to stop false news reports online.

Keit Pentus-Rosimannus, MP, and vice-chairwoman of Estonia’s Reform Party asked Facebook if a fake video of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg appearing drunk found itself on Facebook, would the company leave it up as it did to a Nancy Pelosi video. 0:44

“The people at Google and Facebook are not evil,” said McNamee, an early investor in Facebook.

“They are the products of an American business culture with few rules, where misbehaviour seldom results in punishment. Smart people take what they can get and tell themselves they earned it. They feel entitled. Consequences are someone else’s problem.”

He added that “companies with responsible business models will emerge overnight to fill the void.”

Dire warnings

McNamee, who wrote Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe, said “at a minimum” countries should end the platforms’ ability to perform web tracking and to scan emails and documents, and crack down on the platforms’ surveillance of users.

Centre for International Governance Innovation head Jim Balsillie, who became famous as one of the founders of Blackberry maker Research in Motion, also had dire words for the committee.

“Technology is disrupting governance and, if left unchecked, could render liberal democracy obsolete,” he said.

“Data is not the new oil. It’s the new plutonium: amazingly powerful, dangerous when it spreads, difficult to clean up and with serious consequences when improperly used.”  

On Tuesday, the committee voted to serve a second summons to Facebook Zuckerberg and Sandberg. The subpoena would compel them to appear before the House of Commons committee the next time either of them sets foot in Canada.

The committee’s chair, Conservative MP Bob Zimmer, called it “abhorrent” that the two did not appear this week.

“As soon as they step foot, either Mr. Zuckerberg or Ms. Sandberg, into our country, they will be served and expected to appear before our committee,” said Zimmer.

If they refuse, they will be held in contempt of Parliament, he said.

‘It shows a little bit of disdain’

Neil Potts, the global policy director for Facebook, tried to reassure the committee today that Facebook was taking the work of parliamentarians seriously, despite the decision by Zuckerberg and Sandberg to not come to Canada.

“There’s been this running theme that Mr. Zuckerberg and Ms. Sandberg are not here because they are eschewing their duty. They have mandated and authorized Mr. Chan and myself to appear for this committee to work with you all,” Potts said.

Zimmer — cutting Potts off before he could finish — said that when Sandberg and Zuckerberg were asked to give evidence before a parliamentary committee, they were expected to do so.

“We represent 400 million people so when we ask those two individuals to come, that’s exactly what we expect,” Zimmer said.

“It shows a little bit of disdain from Mark Zuckerberg and Ms. Sandberg to simply choose not to come and it just shows a lack of understanding of what we do as legislators. To use you two individuals in their stead simply is not acceptable.”

Potts tried to excuse their absence by saying he was “not familiar with the procedures of Canadian Parliament and what requires an appearance.”

‘Hours of platitudes from Facebook’

British MP Jo Stevens was even more forceful in her condemnation, saying that while she appreciates the fact that Potts and Facebook Canada’s Head of Public Policy Kevin Chan showed up, she wanted to speak to Zuckerberg.

“He wouldn’t come to answer our questions in London at our Parliament, so we have come across the Atlantic to make it easier for him. And we can only conclude that he’s frightened of scrutiny,” Stevens said.

“And for the avoidance of doubt, I am sick to death of sitting through hours of platitudes from Facebook and avoidance tactics about answering questions. I want the boss here to take responsibility.”

Irish MP James Lawless said he was unimpressed by the explanation Potts offered for the absence of Zuckerberg and Sandberg, calling it “extraordinary.”

“I do find it extraordinary some of the statements that are being made, such as the statement made by Mr. Potts a few minutes ago that he wasn’t familiar with parliamentary procedure, and that was maybe to explain some gap in the evidence,” Lawless said.

“I would have thought that was a basic prerequisite before you entered the room, if you were qualified to do the job. It is disappointing. I want to put that on record.”

The committee also is hearing from:

  • Derek Slater, global director at Google.
  • Colin McKay, head of government affairs and public policy at Google Canada.
  • Carlos Monje, director of public policy at Twitter.
  • Michele Austin, head of government public policy at Twitter Canada.

On Monday, just hours before the committee started, Facebook announced it will take down accounts that try to interfere with the upcoming Canadian election and make those attempts public.

Under questioning by Conservative MP Peter Kent, Chan said Facebook respects the work of legislators in Canada and would comply with any laws they pass.

“We would welcome basic standards that lawmakers can impose on the platform about what should go up and what should come down,” Chan said. “And if lawmakers, in their wisdom, want to draw the line somewhere north or south of censorship, we would be, we would obviously (be) obliged (to follow) local law.”

Google and Microsoft also announced that they support a Canadian initiative to protect the integrity of the election this fall — including removing hoax accounts and fake content.

Twitter had not signed on to that initiative as of Tuesday morning.

 


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