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Politicians’ anger at big tech on full display at International Grand Committee meeting in Ottawa


It’s too early to say if regulation will be enacted or antitrust cases launched, or which countries, if any, will take the lead, but at the end of three days of meetings in Ottawa, one thing was abundantly clear: politicians are not holding back in their criticism of big tech.

Facebook Inc. may have been public enemy No. 1, but over the course of the meeting the outrage in Ottawa sprawled to include concerns over Amazon.com Inc.’s Alexa voice assistant and Microsoft Corp.’s ownership of LinkedIn. Even Apple Inc. came in for a grilling — for allowing Facebook to place their apps on its devices.

“Now, Facebook has done your industry a lot of damage. Why do you continue to do business with them?” U.K. Labour MP Ian Lucas asked a representative from the iPhone maker.

“You present yourself as the good guys, but you’re facilitating the bad guys through the use of your hardware.”

The International Grand Committee on Big Data, Privacy and Democracy was assembled with politicians from a dozen countries, including Canada, the U.K., Germany, Morocco, Mexico and Singapore.

The committee had hoped to hear from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg, and when the two executives failed to show up Tuesday, MPs issued an open summons to Parliament, which will be served if either of them sets foot in Canada in the future.

Across several days politicians heard about the dangers of machine intelligence, the use of social media by dictators to intimidate dissent, data privacy, data harvesting, and a raft of other policy issues.

The most collegial part of the meeting came Monday night when politicians heard from various critics of the big tech companies. Former BlackBerry co-CEO Jim Balsillie called data “the new plutonium” and academic Shoshana Zuboff talked about “surveillance capitalism” and both speakers got a very sympathetic hearing.

Tuesday was a spectacularly bad day in Ottawa for Facebook, as lower-ranked company officials endured a barrage of aggressive questions and browbeating from politicians collectively incensed by the drumbeat of privacy scandals swirling around the social media giant.

Wednesday morning was less intense, but the politicians’ anger at big tech was still very much on display.

Mark Royland, an information security executive at Amazon Web Service, was repeatedly asked questions he couldn’t answer.

“If I connect my Amazon account to Facebook, what information am I sharing between the two platforms?” U.K. Conservative MP Damian Collins asked.

“I’m not aware of any way you do connect Facebook to Amazon,” Royland answered.

“So you’re saying you can’t do it? You can’t connect your Facebook and Amazon accounts?” Collins followed up.

“As far as I know, that’s true. I’ll follow up to make sure that’s true,” Royland repeated.

Three minutes later, Collins pointed out that Royland was wrong, citing Amazon’s website.

“It says ‘How do I connect my Facebook account to Amazon?’ This is from Amazon.com,” Collins said.

“So I’ll just ask again, if you do that, what sort of data are you sharing between the two platforms?”

Royland said he didn’t know.

The anger at big tech appeared to cut across partisan lines, with politicians from all parties and various countries all expressing frustration and suspicion of the companies’ behaviour.

“There’s been a lot of discussion recently in the United States about the new digital monopolies and that they may be a lot more durable than monopolies in the past — the railroads, the phone companies and so on,” Canadian Conservative MP Peter Kent said.

“They can overwhelm competition either by buying it or destroying it.”

At one point Wednesday morning, Conservative committee chair Bob Zimmer pointedly asked what should be done.

I don’t know that I would presume to even understand the aspects of Facebook enough to fix it.

Apple’s user privacy manager Erik Neuenschwander

“It hasn’t come up yet, so I’m just going to ask the question. The reason why we’re here is because of a scandal called Cambridge Analytica and a social media company called Facebook,” Zimmer said.

“From your perspective, from Apple and I’m also going to ask it from Mozilla, how do we fix Facebook? Or, how would you fix Facebook?”

Apple’s user privacy manager, Erik Neuenschwander said, “I don’t know that I would presume to even understand the aspects of Facebook enough to fix it.”

Alan Davidson, vice-president of policy for the Mozilla Foundation, echoed that sentiment.

“It’s very hard from the outside to decide how to fix another company,” he said. “I think a lot of us are really disappointed in the choices that they’ve made, and I think rightly creating concern among a lot of people and a lot of regulators.”

Zimmer, clearly frustrated, said it would be a lot easier if Apple could bring Facebook in line, rather than forcing politicians to do it.

“To me, to change legislation around this is very difficult for us to do, again, with all the parameters around you,” he said.

“It might be more simple for Apple to just do this, rather than to get legislators around the world to pull this off, but we’re giving it a soldier’s try. We’re definitely trying.”

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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