Zuckerberg rejects request to testify before 7 countries' lawmakers

WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST) – Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg is “unable” to testify at a rare joint hearing with lawmakers from seven countries – representing more than 368 million people – who remain frustrated about the social media giant’s handling of misinformation online.

Instead, Facebook will dispatch Richard Allan, the company’s vice-president of policy solutions, to answer questions at a Tuesday (Nov 27) hearing featuring top policymakers from Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Ireland, Latvia, Singapore and the United Kingdom, representatives from the UK said on Friday.

Zuckerberg’s decision against testifying at the global gathering could add to Facebook’s woes with governments around the world, which have grown frustrated with the company’s business practices.

It is uncommon for seven countries to band together and seek to question a chief executive, reflecting the heightened threat of regulation and other punishments now facing Facebook and its peers in Silicon Valley.

In Europe, lawmakers recently have taken aim at the way social media companies handle users’ personal data and combat hate speech and terrorism online.

The European Union previously grilled Zuckerberg at a short, controversial hearing in May.

In Brazil, meanwhile, Facebook has had to battle back misinformation on its site during its most recent election, while WhatsApp emerged as a major flash point for candidates who felt it had been deployed deliberately to spread falsehoods.

In other countries, Facebook has big business opportunities at stake: Singapore is preparing to host Facebook’s first-ever data centre in Asia, which the tech giant has said will cost US$1 billion (S$1.4 billion).

“The Committee still believes that Mark Zuckerberg is the appropriate person to answer important questions about data privacy, safety, security and sharing,” lawmakers said jointly in a statement on Friday, pointing to recent reports about Facebook’s efforts to discredit its political opponents and slowness to identify Russia as a major threat.

The worldwide push for Zuckerberg to testify began earlier this year with the UK, where Damian Collins, the leader of a top, tech-focused parliamentary committee, has probed Facebook over mishaps, including the company’s entanglement with Cambridge Analytica, a political consultancy that had improperly accessed personal data of about 87 million Facebook users.

UK investigators have even fined the social media company in response, which Facebook indicated last week it would appeal.

But Zuckerberg repeatedly has declined to appear at a hearing in front of British lawmakers, including a request at the end of October to testify at a joint hearing with the UK and Canada.

In early November, those countries’ calls for the Facebook leader to appear before an “international grand committee” of policymakers expanded to include Australia, Argentina and Ireland.

Facebook leaders again said it was “not possible” for Zuckerberg to “be available to all parliaments”, according to a letter sent at the time.

By Monday, Brazil, Singapore and Latvia added their voices to the campaign to persuade Zuckerberg to testify, even if by video from afar.

Zuckerberg declined for a third time in a letter sent by a subordinate, instead offering Allan.

“As we have stated previously,” wrote Rebecca Stimson, Facebook’s head of public policy in the UK, “Mr. Zuckerberg is unable to accept your invitation.”

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