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Mark Zuckerberg (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Mark Zuckerberg (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

PoliticsNovember 26, 2018

Facebook is finally being called to account around the world. Why not in New Zealand?

Mark Zuckerberg (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Mark Zuckerberg (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Parliaments in the UK, Australia, Canada and Brazil are waking up to the role of the social media giant in their democracies and is demanding Mark Zuckerberg answer questions. Toby Manhire attempts to learn where New Zealand sits on the issue – and is deeply unimpressed with what he finds.

An annus horribilis for Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook comes to a head tomorrow at Westminster, as a special “international grand committee on disinformation and fake news” gathers. Eight parliaments have summoned the Facebook boss, demanding he appear before them. In a letter addressed to Zuckerberg at Facebook’s tech-bro-swagger address, 1 Hacker Way, California, the chairs of parliamentary committees from the UK, Australia, Canada, Ireland, Argentina, Latvia, Singapore and Brazil demand the most powerful person in the world’s media afford them the same respect he did the European parliament and the US congress – answer some questions. After he indicated he couldn’t make it to London, they suggested a video-link would do the trick. It’s unlikely he’ll be able to manage even that. Maybe he’s forgotten his Skype password.

These politicians insist that the Facebook CEO and chairman – who reportedly has told his employees they are at “war” – must front up and be held accountable after a cavalcade of scandals around the social media monster’s impact on elections, the media and democracy in general. The temperature went up several notches yesterday with news of an extraordinary seizure of internal Facebook documents. The documents are thought to provide clues to who knew what about the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which exploded in March, confirming the UK-based consulting firm had illicitly hoovered up and used for political purposes the personal Facebook data of millions of Facebook profiles without users’ consent.

In the American blur of Thanksgiving eve last week, Facebook confirmed another bombshell story from a week earlier in the New York Times. In the wake of 2017 revelations around the use of Facebook by Russian interests to influence the presidential election in favour of Donald Trump, executives had engaged the PR outfit Definers Public Affairs to propagate negative stories about Facebook’s critics – among them the philanthropist George Soros, a favourite target of anti-semitic slurs from the far right. The Times report saw Facebook stock drop to its lowest level in almost two years.

And those are just the most conspicuous scandals. Facebook has faced constant criticism over dodgy data, massive security breaches, its malign impact on the media and disdain for journalists. Should any of that seems abstract, consider its role in the Rohingya genocide. Please read about that and see if you can stay calm.

On one level, it is inevitable that Facebook should be incessantly under pressure and in the news – it is after all an unprecedented kind of global power, connecting 2.2 billion people a month. But most of all it underscores something that will soon be regarded, surely, as unimaginable: the quite extraordinary and ongoing evasion of regulation. Mark Zuckerberg likes to preach Facebook’s commitment to “building the long term social infrastructure to bring humanity together”, but God forbid any public scrutiny while he’s doing it.

That a company so huge, so influential, which seeps into every chink of society and politics, and which has in its possession the greatest private trove of information about humans’ lives – even those which don’t use Facebook – in, well, the history of the world, should be so utterly and oftentimes contemptuously impervious to serious oversight by our elected representatives is the greatest joke the 21st century has played on us.

So no wonder that the US and the EU, the UK and Australia and Canada, Ireland, Singapore, Brazil and others are beginning to show a willingness to push back. Where’s New Zealand on that list? It seems a like-minded bunch, right? Where are we?

The best-suited select committee here to add its name to the signatories is the Justice Committee. Had there been talks with the UK committee spear-heading the whole thing? And what was the general view about the role of Facebook on our democracy, that sort of thing? I met with its chair last week to pose those questions and more.

“I have not had any contact with or correspondence from international counterparts on this question,” said Raymond Huo, chair of the Justice Committee.

“The Justice Committee is currently undertaking an inquiry into the 2017 general election and 2016 local elections,” he said.

“By convention, a parliamentary committee undertakes such an inquiry after every general election. The terms of reference for the inquiry include ‘the increased importance and use of social media in campaigning, advertising, and expression of political opinions’. The work of the committee on the inquiry is ongoing.”

(He didn’t mention that the inquiry is being livestreamed. On Facebook.)

But that was pretty much it. “I am mindful that as chairperson, I speak for the Justice Committee as a whole, and do so only when the committee empowers me to do so,” he said. “I therefore have no comment as chairperson on your other questions at this time.”

What about the attorney-general. He is after all tasked with maintaining the rule of law. And David Parker isn’t the kind of politician to shrink from an important democratic issue.

“No comment,” he said.

OK. What about the justice minister, Andrew Little?

He hasn’t replied to a request for comment.

Maybe he will. (Update: he has.) Maybe there’s someone in our parliament who gives a shit about all of this. I look forward to hearing from them. Until then, as the government continues to pour untold millions of public dollars into a bulldozing offshore media behemoth that has a terrible reputation as a global citizen and shows enormous enthusiasm for not paying tax in places like New Zealand, the only question is whether the puny shrug on this urgently important question is because we’re supine or naive.

Keep going!