Mark Zuckerberg was represented by an empty chair at an “international grand committee” on fake news and disinformation in London on Tuesday, after repeatedly refusing invitations to give evidence to lawmakers present representing nine countries.
Those lawmakers roundly criticized the Facebook boss, who said he would be unable to attend the hearing either in person or via video link. Representatives from the U.K., Canada, France, Argentina, Singapore, Ireland, Belgium, Brazil and Latvia were all in attendance. The committee has no power to summon or sanction people, and cannot penalize businesses.
“I would say at the outset how deeply disappointed we are about Mark Zuckerberg’s decision to ignore this summons from so many different nations,” said Canadian lawmaker Charlie Angus. “This is an unprecedented situation we’re dealing with.”
Facebook’s share price has dropped by about 40% since March in light of multiple damaging revelations, including those related to Russian interference during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, a data breach involving up to 87 million users, and a political advocacy firm linked to the Trump campaign.
The international committee was brought together by lawmakers from the U.K. as an extension of a domestic inquiry into fake news and disinformation. After Zuckerberg repeatedly refused to attend questioning by that panel, the inquiry joined together with lawmakers from other countries to add weight to their calls for him to appear. Zuckerberg has been questioned by American lawmakers, but he has so far not appeared before those of other nations.
Tracing similar lines to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation in the U.S., lawmakers on the U.K. inquiry are trying to determine the extent of foreign interference in democratic processes, and the extent to which social media companies may have been complicit in any such interference.
At the hearing, a representative from the U.K. alleged that Facebook higher-ups were aware of Russian attempts to manipulate its platform in October 2014, well before the date previously publicly acknowledged that information first being brought to their attention. An engineer allegedly notified the company about Russian IP addresses accessing “three billion data points a day” from the platform, according to Damian Collins, who chairs the U.K. fake news inquiry. That information apparently comes from internal Facebook emails recently by Collins’ committee.
Collins said he hoped to publish the documents in the coming week. If they indeed show that Facebook was aware of Russian interference earlier than previously established, it could be highly damaging for the company.
“The engineers who had flagged these initial concerns subsequently looked into this further and found no evidence of specific Russian activity,” a Facebook spokesperson told News time, while also alleging that the documents had been selectively leaked by a party trying to sue the company.
Sitting next to the empty space with Zuckerberg’s name on it at the hearing was Richard Allan, Facebook’s vice president of policy solutions, sent to answer questions in the CEO’s stead.
“I’m not going to disagree with you that we’ve damaged public trust through some of the actions we’ve taken,” Allan told the panel.
On multiple occasions during the two-and-a-half hour hearing, Allan was unable to provide answers to questions posed by lawmakers. At one point, he concluded an answer with the words “not that I’m aware of.”
That prompted a rebuke from the U.K. lawmaker Clive Efford. “These are decisions that are made at a level that it appears you don’t operate at within Facebook,” he said. “Which is why we actually need to speak to Mr. Zuckerberg.”
After the hearing, the representatives from nine parliaments signed a declaration calling for global rules to govern the internet.
“The internet is global and law relating to it must derive from globally agreed principles,” says the declaration, which calls for social media companies to be held partially accountable for “harmful and misleading content” if they fail to remove it from their platforms.
The hearing was the first time since 1933 that lawmakers from multiple countries jointly attended a hearing at the U.K. parliament. “The fact this meeting is taking place,” said Collins, “shows just how seriously we take these issues.”