Special Report

Breaking down the Facebook, Google and Twitter testimony at the International Grand Committee

Members of the grand committee in Ottawa on May 28. Murad Hemmadi/The Logic

Politicians from 12 countries representing 400 million citizens gathered in Ottawa on Tuesday to question some of the world’s largest tech companies about antitrust, online misinformation and privacy.

It was a tense—and, at times, combative—three hours of testimony, with policymakers from Canada to Singapore pressing executives from Facebook, Google and Twitter for commitments they largely avoided making.

The Logic was at the hearing, and has a detailed breakdown of the key takeaways.

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Talking Point

Despite assurances that they welcome further regulation, Big Tech came in for heavy criticism at the second meeting of the International Grand Committee on Big Data, Privacy and Democracy in Ottawa. Representatives for Facebook, Google and Twitter—though not the CEOs who were invited—faced questions about content moderation, antitrust issues and their preparations for the October federal election.

Big Tech executives skip proceedings

The committee began the session by voting to serve a summons to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg compelling them to appear before the group the next time the two executives step foot on Canadian soil. If they ignore the order, they could be found in contempt of Parliament. The measure is rarely used in Canada. And, while the House has the power to imprison someone found in contempt, that punishment is extremely rare.

The committee also invited Google CEO Sundar Pichai and former Alphabet executive chair Eric Schmidt; Apple CEO Tim Cook and COO Jeff Williams; Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Amazon Web Services CEO Andy Jassy; Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey; Snap CEO Evan Spiegel; and WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton, who left Facebook in 2017. None of them will testify during this week’s hearings. Amazon is sending an executive from its Amazon Web Services group to testify on Wednesday, but no one from Snap or WhatsApp is scheduled to appear.

Facebook instead sent Kevin Chan, head of public policy for Canada, and Neil Potts, global policy director. Bob Zimmer, the grand committee’s co-chair and a Conservative MP, noted that neither appears in The Information’s leadership chart of the Facebook policy team’s 35 most senior officials.

Committee members repeatedly slammed the company for the substitution. “Shame on Mark Zuckerberg and shame on Sheryl Sandberg for not showing up today,” said Zimmer.

NDP MP Charlie Angus said he was not aware of a precedent for the motion, which he moved. But the committee has no power to enforce the summons outside Canada.

Even so, the measure made international headlines, with CNN, Politico, and the Daily Mail all covering it.

Twitter sent Carlos Monje, director of public policy and philanthropy for the U.S. and Canada, and Michele Austin, head of government, public policy and philanthropy for Twitter Canada. Google had Colin McKay, head of government relations and public policy for Canada, and Derek Slater, global director of information policy, government affairs and public policy, appear.

Committee members focused many of their questions on Facebook, with fewer for Google and only a handful for Twitter.

What about U.S. lawmakers?

While Ellen Weintraub, chair of the U.S. Federal Election Commission, testified before the committee on Tuesday afternoon, no elected officials from the country participated in the proceedings. That’s despite Senator Mark Warner’s office saying in March he was considering attending the meeting. Zimmer said his office held discussions with several U.S. members of Congress, but none were able to attend. “We have a very close, constructive working relationship,” said Collins, noting that U.S. officials had introduced committee members to some of the subject-area experts who testified before the companies’ appearance.

The U.S. government has so far resisted international efforts to set rules for social-media platforms, most of which are headquartered in the country. In May, the Donald Trump administration declined to sign the Christchurch Call to Action, citing free-speech concerns. Composed at a meeting of government leaders in Paris, the declaration commits governments to enforce laws against the creation or spread of extremist or terrorist content, consider further regulation of platforms and encourage media outlets to “apply ethical standards” to coverage of attacks.

Canada has signed the statement.

Zimmer said MPs from New Zealand also expressed an interest in attending the grand committee, but weren’t able to participate due to the expense. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern led the Paris summit, and in February proposed a new two to three per cent levy on international tech giants’ local revenues.

Platforms welcome regulation…

Google, Facebook and Twitter all welcomed further regulation in their opening statements. Google’s Slater called for international cooperation, clear definitions of unlawful content and for governments to avoid overly restrictive requirements like “disproportionate penalties” and uniform removal times.

Facebook’s Chan said the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation and Canada’s Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act—both of which regulate privacy online—are “good models to emulate.” He called for similar laws in other jurisdictions, saying “some degree of harmonization around the world would be desirable and facilitate economic growth.”

…But not antitrust regulation

Some committee members focused on how competition rules—which attempt to prevent companies from forming monopolies in particular industries and markets—could be applied to  tech platforms.

In February, Germany’s Federal Cartel Office banned Facebook from combining Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram data, and from linking it to personal information gathered using Facebook’s code on third-party websites, without users’ consent.

The ethics committee’s vice-chair, Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, cited that ruling and asked whether the platforms believed competition authorities should consider data and privacy in addition to price when reviewing mergers and acquisitions. “It’s clear that competition policy and privacy policies are quite different,” Facebook’s Chan responded. Neither Google nor Twitter expressed a view.   

In May, Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains asked Canada’s Competition Bureau and his own department to review whether the country’s antitrust laws properly address “the impact of digital transformation on competition.” The ethics committee similarly recommended in December 2018 that the government expand the agency’s mandate so it could look into data-driven mergers.

The antitrust watchdog itself said the legislation it’s guided by doesn’t need to change for it to be able to investigate those types of mergers. There’s “little evidence” that the emergence of data requires “a new approach to competition policy,” it said in a February 2018 report.

On regulating content

Irish MP Hildegarde Naughton said her government is set to appoint a digital safety commissioner role with the power to order content to be taken down. Naughton noted that many of the tech giants have their international or European headquarters in Ireland, meaning that the new commissioner could end up regulating content moderation for the entire continent.

While Facebook’s Potts did not answer Naughton’s question about the new role specifically, he said platforms need “clear definitions by government of what’s legal and clear notices” for takedowns.

Other witnesses also recommended changes to how companies should be regulated. On Tuesday morning, Jim Balsillie, former co-CEO of Research in Motion (now BlackBerry), recommended that governments require CEOs and directors to sign annual certifications taking personal responsibility for the activity on their platforms. In April, the British government published a white paper similarly proposing executives be held individually liable.

Governments and legislators have suggested stronger enforcement of laws against spreading hate or extremism online. The Canadian federal government’s digital charter—a list of 10 principles released last week to guide future tech regulation—states that citizens can expect digital platforms to not foster or disseminate such content, and platforms will incur penalties if any of the laws or regulations set to be changed because of the charter are violated.

And, in December 2018, the ethics committee recommended new legislation to require online platforms to remove “manifestly illegal content” like hate speech, harassment or disinformation “in a timely fashion.”

Doctored—not fake—news

Facebook faced heated questioning from Damian Collins, a British MP and the grand committee’s co-chair, about the firm’s decision not to take down a doctored video of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, where she appears to be slurring her speech. Potts noted that the video appears with a warning saying that it is false. YouTube, a Google subsidiary, has removed the video.

The exchange was one of the most tense points of the testimony, with Collins interrupting Potts on several occasions:

Collins: “What Facebook is doing is giving a green light to distort video of politicians.”

Potts: “The question is: should we take it down or should we tell people that it’s considered misleading or doctored?”

Collins: “This is not an issue of free speech. YouTube has taken it down.”

Potts: “This points to the complexity of the issue.”

Collins: “Actually, it points to the simplicity. This video is false and you’re allowing it to spread.”

You say yes, I say no: Tech platforms and the Canadian election

Committee members questioned Google’s decision to not accept political advertising during the 2019 federal election—scheduled for October—because of a requirement that platforms set up registries of such ads. Liberal MP Frank Baylis noted that the company said it had insufficient time to implement the database, but also that it was able to identify and stop ads that violated the ban. “You can instantaneously decide it’s an ad, but … once you’ve decided it’s an ad, it’s too much work to program it to put it in a database?” he asked.

“The needs of implementing the law, in the specific way it was written, were prohibitive for us in this period of time to get it right,” Slater said.

Facebook, by contrast, touted its compliance with the registry requirement. Chan cited it in his opening statement, and at least twice more during the hearing.

Twitter has not followed either company’s lead. While Elections Canada requires parties and third-party political groups to provide information to platforms for the registry, Twitter wanted the agency to verify the identities of political advertisers themselves, Austin told a Senate committee in November 2018. Austin and Monje were not asked on Tuesday about the company’s plans for the election.

Erskine-Smith and Angus also raised Facebook’s response to an investigation by federal privacy commissioner Daniel Therrien concluded in April, which found that the company allowed unauthorized third-party apps to access user data and did not properly oversee their privacy policies. The watchdog said that Facebook had not agreed with its findings and refused to implement its recommendations. Therrien also announced plans to sue the company to try to force the changes. “Given that the commissioner has indicated that he will be taking us to federal court, we are somewhat limited in what we can say,” Chan said.

Erskine-Smith, a lawyer, disputed Chan’s remarks—one of many occasions of committee members cutting off the platforms’ representatives when the elected officials felt their questions were not being directly answered. “We actually had been working quite hard over the last few months to arrive at a resolution and a path forward with the privacy commissioner,” Chan continued.  

The other witnesses

Last night, the group heard from Jason Kint, CEO of Digital Context Next, an online publishing trade association; Balsillie; Taylor Owen and Heidi Tworek, professors at McGill University and the University of British Columbia, respectively; Ben Scott, who was an innovation policy adviser to the U.S. Department of State during the Barack Obama administration; Roger McNamee, an early Facebook and Google investor; Shoshana Zuboff, author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism; and Maria Ressa, CEO of Rappler, an online news publication in the Philippines.

McNamee took the opportunity to criticize Facebook and Google sister company Sidewalk Labs, the latter of which he said he “wouldn’t let within 100 miles of Toronto.”

What comes next

On Tuesday afternoon, grand committee members signed a declaration of their “commitment to foster market competition, increase the accountability of social media platforms, protect privacy rights and personal data, and maintain and strengthen democracy.”

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Representatives from Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and the Mozilla Foundation will appear on Wednesday.

After that, the committee’s next meeting is scheduled for November in Ireland.

In Canada, the tech giants appear set to avoid any major legislation or regulation prior to the federal election. The government’s digital charter was short on legislative or regulatory changes and long on statements of principle.

On Monday, The Globe and Mail reported that Facebook, Google and Microsoft have voluntarily agreed to work with Ottawa to fight online misinformation using their existing tools. The government is asking other tech companies to join in, but won’t require them to.