Facebook has been in the news for all the wrong reasons of late. Rather ironic, considering that it is one of the largest sources of delivering news to the masses, whether by media outlets, or by other mass communicators. The company received a severe bashing yesterday, delivered by a panel of lawmakers from 9 countries.
Mark Zuckerberg was conspicuous by his absence, and Facebook was instead represented by policy VP Richard Allan, who spent quite a bit of time answering questions about what lawmakers called Facebook’s inadequate attempts to remove hate speech and misinformation from its platform.
Among other things, the lawmakers asked Allan to explain the steps the social networking platform was taking to ensure that the use of WhatsApp to spread political misinformation in South America was stopped; Why Facebook didn’t remove inflammatory anti-Muslim hate speech in Sri Lanka, until the country went and blocked the platform, why it is still tracking non-users in parts of Europe despite the GDPR, and other questions in a similar vein.
The 24 representatives from UK, Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, France, Ireland, Latvia and Singapore also continued to remark on Zuckerberg’s absence from what was an important meeting, and a chance for him to explain things from his perspective. We are certain that as Zuckerberg’s fill-in, Richard Allan probably had to spend some very uncomfortable moments in the room.
Speaking at the hearing, Canadian MP Bob Zimmer said:
Here we are again hearing another apology from Facebook — ‘look trust us, y’all regulate us etc but we really don’t have that much influence in the global scheme of things’. In this room we regulate over 400M people and to not have your CEO sit in that chair there is an offense to all of us in this room and really our citizens as well.[Blackberry co-founder] Jim Balsille said, when I asked him on our committee, is our democracy at risk if we don’t change the laws in Canada to deal with surveillance capitalism? He said without a doubt. What do you think?
Allan countered this question with some generic statements regarding the need to do things right, and the issues Facebook was facing as it attempted to implement them.
Meanwhile, Zimmer’s accusations do have a basis in fact. Facebook has been in murky waters of late and while it has been making efforts, lawmakers have claimed that it is just not doing enough. By sending in Richard Allan, Zuckerberg is not only risking alienating a lot of powerful people, but is also making people question his conviction when it comes to making Facebook a fair platform.
As Canada’s Charlie Angus put it:
The problem we have with Facebook is there’s never accountability — so I would put it to you when we talk about regulation that perhaps the best regulation would be antitrust. Because people who don’t like Facebook — oh they could go to WhatsApp . But oh we have some problems in South America, we have problems in Africa, we have to go back to Mr Zuckerberg who’s not here.
My daughters could get off Facebook. But they’d go to Instagram . But that’s now controlled by Facebook. Perhaps the simplest form of regulation would be to break Facebook up — or treat it as a utility so that we could all then feel that when we talk about regulation we’re talking about allowing competition, counting metrics that are actually honest and true, and that Facebook has broken so much trust to allow you to simply gobble up every form of competition is probably not in the public interest.
So when we’re talking about regulation would you be interested in asking your friend Mr Zuckerberg if we could have a discussion about antitrust?
And on Allan’s fumbling replies about it depending on the problem, he added:
The problem is Facebook. We’re talking about symptoms but the problem is the unprecedented economic control of every form of social discourse and communication. That it’s Facebook. That that is the problem that we need to address.
All in all, the meeting did not go well for the social networking platform. Lawmakers are unhappy with it, and that’s definitely not a good sign, regardless of the influence the company wields over users. Unless the company manages to appease them, it could soon find other countries beside Srilanka blocking it. And regardless of the kind of influence it believes it holds over the population, humans have time and again shown themselves to be pretty fickle.