Facebook under pressure as 11 parliaments join forces

Ireland one of countries at joint meeting with aim of holding big tech to account

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg’s refusals to appear before House of Commons committee may be in danger of backfiring. Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg’s refusals to appear before House of Commons committee may be in danger of backfiring. Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

 

Parliamentary committees from 11 countries from across the globe, including Ireland, will hold an unprecedented joint meeting in Westminster on Tuesday to put pressure on technology giants such as Facebook and Google to adopt a more responsible approach to social media.

Frustrated by repeated refusals by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to appear before the House of Commons digital, cultural and media committee, its chairman, Damian Collins, arranged a joint meeting with his counterparts in the Canadian parliament to examine fake news, disinformation and the culture of data-sharing on the big technology platforms.

Parliamentary committees in other countries took up the invitation to join. As of last night, another nine parliaments have joined forces, including France, Germany, Australia, Argentina, Brazil, Latvia, and Singapore.

Ireland is being represented by the chairwoman of the Oireachtas Communications Committee, Hildegarde Naughton (Fine Gael), and Green Party leader Eamon Ryan, who is also a committee member.

List of demands

On Monday night, in advance of the meeting, at which Facebook’s head of policy, Richard Allen, will appear, the interparliamentary group issued a paper outlining “international principles of the law of governing the internet”.

The paper argues for more transparency, accountability and protection for representative democracy and states the “deliberate spreading of disinformation is a direct threat to democracy”.

It also states that social media companies should he held liable if they fail to comply with judicial, statutory or regulatory orders to remove harmful and misleading content from their platforms.

“Technology companies must demonstrate their accountability to users by making themselves fully answerable to national legislatures and other organs of democracy,” it states.

Speaking from London last night, Ms Naughton said: “We are asking Facebook to recognise that there should be regulation following two years of scandals surrounding data breaches.

“This is a very positive development and puts pressure on all technology platforms to regulate social media.

“This is about protecting young people and the most vulnerable people .

“We want to work with our international counterparts to make sure the protections are is as robust as they can be.”

Mr Ryan also pointed to the efficacy. “We will have strength in numbers by holding a multi-parliamentary meeting where we can make a much stronger case.

“We are also very much looking for high standards in our own jurisdiction,” he said. He added the decisions taken by Facebook and Google during the abortion referendum to remove ads, and to provide data on the volume and spend, was a positive move and one that should be repeated for future elections.

Upping the ante

The meeting derives from an interim report published by Mr Collins’s committee in the summer that was highly critical of the lack of regulation in social media and of models that could have incentivised the proliferation of inaccurate or misleading news.

It was also particularly critical of Facebook – “What we found, time and again, during the course of our inquiry, was the failure on occasions of Facebook and other tech companies to provide us with the information that we sought” – and also accused it of giving minimal information to questions. It also referred to the unsatisfactory situation where there was no regulation and where Facebook was left to correct its own homework.

“This is the reason why the committee has continued to press for Mark Zuckerberg to appear as a witness as, by his own admission, he is the person who decides what happens at Facebook.”

In a highly unusual development last week – a clear signal of the committee upping the ante against Facebook – Mr Collins sent the serjeant-at-arms of the House of Commons to a London hotel room where the head of technology company Six4Three was staying.

The company is an app developer that got into a dispute with Facebook over access to data users. The serjeant-at-arms told the tech chief executive he had two hours to furnish relevant documents to the committee. When that deadline passed, the serjeant escorted the executive to Westminster, where he was told he would face fines or imprisonment if he did not surrender the documents. He acceded.