LONDON — They came. They saw. They raged at an empty chair.
In an international hearing held at the British parliament Tuesday, lawmakers from eight countries spent two hours grilling a senior Facebook executive over the social networking giants role in misinformation, election meddling and the companys oversized role in Western democracy.
With an empty chair standing in for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who declined an invitation to attend the event, lawmakers channeled their outrage at Richard Allan, Facebooks vice president of policy solutions and a member of the British House of Lords. Questions ranged from whether the tech giant should be broken up to the need for curtailing its data collection practices.
Allan appeared to come closest to cracking when asked by one of the lawmakers what it looked like when the companys 34-year-old boss failed to show up for a hearing with politicians from countries whose combined Facebook user numbers totalled more than 400 million people, or more than the population of the United States.
Allans short response, which received laughter from the packed U.K. parliamentary hearing room, was: “Not great.”
“You are still downplaying FBs role. You still dont grasp the influence you have on election campaigns” — Bob Zimmer, Canadian politician
Bob Zimmer, a Canadian politician, summed up the anger from the international group of lawmakers, many of whom have held separate hearings into Facebook in their national parliaments.
“What do you say to our 400 million constituents that you are taking this seriously?” Zimmer asked Allan, who repeatedly said “Im sorry” in different ways. “You are still downplaying FBs role. You still dont grasp the influence you have on election campaigns.”
Other policymakers from Ireland, Britain, Singapore, Argentina, Brazil, Latvia, France and Belgium peppered Allan with questions aimed at squeezing out new information about how the company collects, stores and uses peoples digital information. In an effort to shame Zuckerberg for not showing up, the officials emblazoned the name of Facebooks chief executive on the empty chair at the hearing.
They chastised Facebook for not doing enough to tackle the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal, to stop misinformation from spreading during electoral campaigns, and to be sufficiently transparent at corporate practices that many said have been left wanting.
“Political accounts have had an influence on elections,” Julie Elliot, a British MP, told the hearing. “They have destabilized democracies.”
Repeatedly, Allan pushed back on such claims, though he admitted Facebook had not done enough in the past to clamp down on the excesses that have been made public. He also said it is likely that people were still using the social network to push polarizing political messages and hate speech.
“We will continue to discover groups of people who are doing things that they shouldnt be doing at election time,” he told the lawmakers.
Much will now depend on how the officials follow up on the international hearing — the group of global officials has no legal authority.
Many of the countries, notably France and Singapore, are already working on domestic “fake news” legislation, though Hildegarde Naughton, an Irish politician attending the hearing, said that it requires international coordination to bring the power of global companies like Facebook to heel.
“Its an enormous task in front of us,” she said. “We cant work in silos, this is the world wide web.”
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