Facebook received yet another public lesson in humility today—this time from an international assembly of politicians from nine governments, representing more than 400 million individuals, across the globe. Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg was summoned to the UK Parliament, but again was a no-show.
The social network did send vp of public policy Richard Allan, himself a member of the UK’s House of Lords, to draw fire from the company’s C-suite, which has undergone mounting pressure since revelations made in The New York Times last week.
The “Grand Committee” hosted by the UK’s Department of Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, grilled Allan with questions on the usual plethora of criticisms the company has grown used to in recent months, including the data Facebook holds on non-account holders, data-sharing with third-party developers and its attitude toward regulation.
Below are some key points for the marketing community.
Recently seized documents claim Facebook knew about data breaches in 2014
DCMS chair Damian Collins, MP, built up huge interest in the hearing over the weekend when he seized court papers relating to a legal battle between Facebook and app developer Six4Three that were previously ordered to be sealed by a judge in a California court.
Although declining to release the full documents, Collins did cite one allegation in the documents which “is of considerable public interest.” He went on: “An engineer at Facebook notified the company in October 2014 [alleging] that entities with Russian IP addresses have been using the Pinterest API key to pull over 3 billion data points a day … was that reported to any external body at the time?”
Allan deflected these claims, reminding officials that they were made by “a hostile litigant” seeking to overturn Facebook policy changes that restrict access to user data.
Collins has not ruled out the possibility of releasing the full documentation in due course.
‘Blowing off’ the representatives of 400 million-plus people really irked politicians
The empty seat and name plate bearing the name “Mark Zuckerberg” at the proceedings cannot be mistaken for oversight and speaks volumes as to the rancor felt by those assembled (see above).
However, eager to perform while on the world stage, many of them switched on the color commentary. Charlie Angus, vice-chair of the standing committee on access to information, privacy and ethics in Canada’s House of Commons, gave an exemplary performance.
He led with the following, “My opening question [is about] the corporate decision of Facebook to blow off this meeting … who gave Mr. Zuckerberg the advice to ignore this committee?”
The Canadian representative went on to add, “We see ourselves as … the heart of the democratic system … we’ve never seen anything quite like Facebook where … our form of civil conversation seems to have been up-ended by frat boy billionaires from California.”
Facebook is pro-regulation and working on it, but politicians say that’s their call
Canada’s Angus also summarized the mood of the assembled politicians when he asserted that Facebook had lost the faith of the international community when it comes to self-policing.
Allan outlined that Facebook is now working on such a framework to implement in tandem with governments around the world, especially on how to tackle fake news and foreign interference in elections.
“I’m going to agree with you. One of the areas that I’m working on right now is precisely to understand the kind of regulatory framework that is in everyone’s interests,” he added.
These remarks were met with a blunt rebuttal by DCMS chairman Collins. He added, “I don’t think it’s up to Facebook to determine what regulatory structure it should be under. It should be up to parliaments to determine that, and that’s why we’re here.”
Fake Facebook accounts are more a problem for marketers than the electorate
Allan was quizzed on efforts to shut down fake accounts that can threaten national security by disrupting racial harmony and trust in public institutions, something Facebook is fighting with AI in what he termed “robot wars.”
Although, he went on to say, “Most fake account creation as we understand it, is not with political intent. It’s with commercial intent.”
Such actors want to create fake accounts in order to sell bogus followers with inflated network numbers that they can use for the purposes of pushing out spam messaging, he added.
“More insidiously, there are people who are very careful to create only one or two accounts and act as though they’re a normal Facebook user,” said Allan. “The issue that we saw in the U.S. with the Internet Research Agency was often accounts like that.”
Facebook concedes that it’s ‘not in a good place’
One of the lawmakers posed the question: “Is there a feeling amongst Facebook and the staff that trust in Facebook has plummeted?”
Although he denied “the mischaracterization” of recent “personal attacks,” Allan did concede there was an internal realization that it must try harder to regain public trust.
He said, “Absolutely, it’s a major concern. The major topic of conversation we recognize, both through our own actions and external events, [is] that we’re not in a good place in terms of trust.”