Ottawa MPs are turning to British MPs for help in an extraordinary attempt to force Facebook boss Nick Clegg, a former British deputy prime minister, to answer their questions on tech giants’ intimidation tactics.
The Commons heritage committee is asking its Westminster counterpart whether it will convene a joint committee to get Mr. Clegg, who is a British citizen and divides his time between London and California, to give evidence, after his refusal to appear at two Ottawa committee hearings this month.
The Commons heritage committee had wanted to question Mr. Clegg about Facebook’s decision to block Canadians’ access to news if the online news bill, which is now going through Parliament, passes in its current form. The bill would make Google and Facebook pay news organizations for posting or linking to their work.
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Mr. Clegg, Facebook’s president of global affairs, was summoned to appear on Monday before the heritage committee but failed to show up in person or by video link. He had also agreed to appear at a committee meeting last week but then declined because the title of the hearing “Tech Giants’ Use of Intimidation Tactics” was considered too “confrontational” when it was posted.
The MPs agreed to tone down the title of the meeting in an effort to get him to appear, and summoned him to testify on Monday but he did not agree.
Instead of hearing his testimony, the committee discussed his no-show behind closed doors, Monday, agreeing to contact the chair of Westminster’s culture, media and sport committee about a joint meeting to try to compel him to appear, committee minutes published Wednesday show.
The move was suggested by Quebec Liberal MP Anthony Housefather who told The Globe and Mail that Mr. Clegg’s refusal to respond to their summons showed “a true lack of respect by Meta [Facebook’s parent company] for Canada’s institutions.”
The Canadian Parliament cannot compel Mr. Clegg to appear, as he is not resident here, although it does have the power to get him to testify if he ever comes to Canada.
“Along with the other members of the committee, I was deeply disappointed that Nick Clegg, as a former parliamentarian, reneged on his commitment to appear before the committee and then failed to appear when he was duly summoned,” Mr. Housefather said.
“The challenge for the committee is that Mr. Clegg is a U.K. citizen and lives in the U.K. and the U.S. which is outside of our jurisdiction. As such I suggested to the committee that the chair reach out to the U.K. committee on culture, media and sport to see how we can co-operate on our study of the tech giants, including potential joint meetings. I was very pleased that the committee accepted this suggestion.”
Mr. Clegg travels around the world in a quasi-diplomatic role for the tech giant.
British parliamentary committees can send for witnesses and, if they refuse, a summons can report their refusal to the Commons as contempt, though this is considered a last resort. Like in Canada, they cannot compel people from overseas to give evidence.
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In 2018, an Ottawa committee broke with convention to convene a joint meeting with a committee in Westminster in an effort to get Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg to appear. The following year, Canada’s Commons ethics committee and Britain’s culture, media and sport committee adopted motions to summon Mr. Zuckerberg to appear at the joint International Grand Committee on Big Data, Privacy and Democracy in Ottawa, but he did not turn up.
Kevin Chan, Facebook’s global policy director, and Rachel Curran, its head of public policy for Canada, have both given evidence to the heritage committee on the tech giant’s plans to withdraw from news in Canada over Bill C-18.
At the meeting earlier this month that Mr. Clegg had been due to attend, Mr. Chan read out his prepared remarks including the introduction: “My name is Nick Clegg.”
He said Mr. Clegg had been looking forward to addressing Canadian MPs but “would no longer be appearing,” because “the title of the hearing was changed to a much more confrontational one” that seemed not to be about the online news bill.
At the end of the meeting, after being thanked for appearing by committee chair Hedy Fry, Mr. Chan was heard saying “so reprehensible,” in an apparent reference to the hearing. Ms. Fry informed him that he was speaking into an open microphone, that everyone had heard him and that his comment was inappropriate.