The day that Facebook disrespected Canada

The adage “If you’re not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product” existed, in some form, long before the internet took over our brains. But in the last several months, with remarkable swiftness, it seems many of those walking-and-talking human products—and the legislators who represent them—have suddenly realized the full truth of this and reacted with fury.It was only in January that Karina Gould, minister of democratic institutions, introduced a plan to combat foreign and online interference in the upcoming election. The government announcement described the plan in part—with touching confidence or weapons-grade naïveté, depending on how you viewed it—as simply, “Expecting social media platforms to act.”There were no  mechanisms outlined to make that happen: it just would, somehow.By early April, when the Canadian Security Establishment released a report on foreign interference, Gould was “not feeling great” about the eagerness of social media companies to live up to those virtuous expectations. “We have not really seen that much progress with them,” she said. “I don’t have the confidence that they’re disclosing everything with us.”Just a few weeks later, Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien announced that Facebook had broken the law gobbling up the private information of hundreds of thousands of Canadians as part of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and he would seek a court order to force the recalcitrant company to change its “essentially empty” privacy protections. By then, the hopes for voluntary improvement had evaporated. “We understand that the time of self-regulation is coming to an end,” Gould said.Which brings us to the end of May, when an international committee—called, rather grandly, the International Grand Committee on Big Data, Privacy and Democracy—comprised of Canadian MPs and legislators from a dozen other countries, including the U.K., Ireland, Singapore, Mexico, Germany, Chile and Morocco, gathered in Ottawa to grill executives from tech and social media giants on every aspect of their business models and civic conduct.Sometimes a symbolic gesture can be hammily obvious but also highly effective, and so it was with the two empty chairs parked at the witness table behind nameplates emblazoned “Mark Zuckerberg” and “Sheryl Sandberg.”READ MORE: Exposing Facebook’s ‘deeply troubling’ behaviourThe committee wished to properly commemorate Facebook’s CEO and COO, you see, who had been summoned to this international gathering but elected to no-show, and the news photographers present of course swarmed the irresistible little tableau, shutters chattering.The meeting kicked off with a vote in favour of NDP MP Charlie Angus’s motion to issue an open summons to the two erstwhile execs, should they materialize at a Canadian airport “to come here for a tech conference or to go fishing,” Angus suggested.This was the second gathering of the International Grand Committee (IGC), the first having been held in London last November and the third planned for Ireland this fall. And this group of legislators, in the parlance of the internet they had come together to try to make sense of, Did Not Come To Play.Conservative MP Bob Zimmer—co-chair of the IGC, and chair of the standing committee on access to information, privacy and ethics that hosted it—clarified the standing summons idea in an interview after the hearings. “There’s not going to be a bailiff at every airport in Canada, but if we get word that they’re going to be in Canada, we will have a bailiff go meet them at the airport and serve them,” he said. “If we have to pull off an emergency meeting to meet them…we will absolutely do that.”If the Facebook executives were to then ignore that summons, the next step would be a vote on whether to hold them in contempt of Parliament. “It’s a very unusual procedure. Are we going to put them in handcuffs? No,” Zimmer said. “But to be held in contempt of our entire country of 36 million people, I wouldn’t say that would serve any platform well.”Over the two days of the meeting, few of the tech companies represented—including Facebook, Amazon, Google, Twitter, Apple, Microsoft and Mozilla—or their emissaries escaped tough and sometimes embarrassing questioning, but it was plain that Facebook was the committee’s bête noire, seen as both greedier in the personal information it hoovered up from its users and more resistant to changing its practices. That obstinance seemed particularly galling to the legislators, given the purring deference with which the two Facebook representatives who did show up responded to every query and criticism.
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