The House of Commons ethics committee has voted to issue a summons to Facebook Inc.’s top two executives for their failure to attend a gathering in Ottawa where global leaders grilled representatives from the biggest tech platforms in the world.
The absences of Facebook chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg and chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg sparked sharp criticism on Tuesday at the Canadian meeting of the International Grand Committee on Big Data, Privacy and Democracy. Now the pair face a continuing summons that will require them to appear before the committee the next time they choose to set foot in Canada. Should they decline, they will be held in contempt of Parliament, the committee voted.
Conservative MP Peter Kent said the company “has shown extreme disrespect and disregard for sovereign governments.” Committee chair Bob Zimmer said it was “abhorrent” that Mr. Zuckerberg and Ms. Sandberg chose not to attend.
“It needs to be stated: They were invited to appear, and they were expected to appear, and they’re choosing not to,” Mr. Zimmer said.
“I am not familiar with the procedures of Canadian Parliament and what requires appearance,” responded Neil Potts, a director of public policy for Facebook, who was sitting next to the company’s Canadian public-policy head, Kevin Chan, a former Liberal parliamentary staffer. “But I do want to get on record that they are committed to working with government as well as being responsible towards these issues.”
“If that was the case, they would be seated in those two chairs,” Mr. Zimmer replied.
Twitter and Google also declined to send top executives to the grand committee meeting on Tuesday.
Politicians from several countries questioned representatives from large tech platforms and their biggest critics on the second day of the three-day meeting in Ottawa. As Facebook, Google and Twitter explained their policies and plans to fight misinformation and protect the public’s privacy, grand committee members raised recent missteps – from last year’s Cambridge Analytica data scandal to lax policing of hate speech.
The committee chastised Facebook for refusing to remove a doctored video of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, warning that it sets a dangerous precedent for global political discourse. The widely shared video has been slowed down to give the impression the senior politician is slurring her words. Google-owned YouTube has removed the video, but Facebook has refused.
Mr. Potts said the case raises the philosophical question of how best to deal with such videos. He said Facebook decided it is better to keep such videos online but add a disclaimer stating it is fake or its authenticity is in dispute.
“Do you not see that what Facebook is doing is giving a green light to anyone in the world that wants to make a distorted or fake film about a senior politician?” asked British lawmaker Damian Collins, who chairs the Britain’s digital, culture, media and sport committee. Mr. Collins’s committee played a lead role in investigating how the Facebook files of as many as 87 million users were improperly obtained by British consulting firm Cambridge Analytica and used to assist voter targeting efforts in political campaigns.
Earlier in the day, the committee heard from several high-profile critics of the social-media giants.
Roger McNamee, an early investor in Facebook who has been described as an adviser and mentor to Mr. Zuckerberg, told the committee that the large platforms should be shut down, at least temporarily.
“It is the threat of shutting them down and the willingness to do it for brief periods of time that creates the leverage to do what I really want to do, which is to eliminate the business model of behavioural manipulation and data surveillance,” he said. “I don’t think this is about putting toothpaste back into tubes. This is about formulating toothpaste that doesn’t poison people.”
Jim Balsillie, a former co-chief executive of Research in Motion, said governments should act immediately on specific measures, such as cracking down on micro-targeted ads during election campaigns.
“History will be very kind to those that are taking the leadership – like around this table – and it will judge very harshly those that succumbed to their personal insecurities to be razzle-dazzled by these folks. Of course you can regulate,” he said. “You have all the power to regulate.”
While representatives from Facebook, Google and Twitter each said they were open to working with governments, they often hesitated when asked to make specific promises, such as when MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith asked them to provide the committee with internal reports about their algorithms.
One recurring Canadian project in the grand committee’s crosshairs was a digital-first neighbourhood on Toronto’s waterfront being proposed by Google affiliate Sidewalk Labs. While Sidewalk staff have long said that project details will be made clear when a final deal is revealed for public consultation in June, critics have become frustrated about its implications for the future of privacy and data collection in cities.
Mr. McNamee told the committee that he “wouldn’t let them within 100 miles of Toronto.”
Meanwhile, Harvard Business School professor emerita Shoshana Zuboff, the author of this year’s acclaimed book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, took multiple opportunities to warn the committee about what she sees as worst-case scenarios. "The front line of this war between surveillance capitalism and democracy is being waged in Canada – specifically, in the city of Toronto,” she said in a presentation on Monday evening.
The committee meeting followed a new “declaration on electoral integrity” from Ottawa on Monday, where companies including Facebook, Google and Microsoft agreed to a series of promises to help ensure the integrity of the coming federal election.