Twenty-four lawmakers from nine parliaments around the world descended on London Tuesday morning to put Facebook under the microscope over its handling of data breaches and disinformation. But, to their fury, one key element was missing—Mark Zuckerberg.
The CEO repeatedly turned down approaches from the ostentatiously-titled International Grand Committee on Disinformation and Fake News to appear before them for questioning at the British parliament. But the global group of parliamentarians made sure people knew he ducked the debate.
The British parliament's Digital, Culture, and Sport Committee—which hosted the event—posted a photo just before it started showing an empty chair, a nameplate for the Facebook CEO, and them all looking on. It was captioned: “Nine countries. 24 official representatives. 447 million people represented. One question: where is Mark Zuckerberg?”
Facebook twice refused invitations for Zuckerberg, according to the committee, saying the CEO was “not able to be in London” and “not able to accept the invitation.” The Committee then offered the opportunity for him to give evidence over video link—but that was also refused.
The job of defending the company instead fell to Facebook's Vice President of Policy Solutions Richard Allan who fielded questions on Russian interference, the Myanmar genocide, and the damning New York Times expose published earlier this month about about how data breaches were dealt with within Facebook.
Ahead of the meeting, the British parliament had sensationally seized internal Facebook documents alleged to contain revelations on the data and privacy controls that led to Cambridge Analytica scandal.
The chair of the parliament's digital committee, member of parliament Damien Collins, said it wouldn't publish the whole cache today but noted one item that was “of considerable public interest.”
"An engineer at Facebook notified the company in October of 2014 that an entity with Russian IP addresses had been using a Pinterest API key to pull over three billion data points a day," Collins alleged, citing the documents which he had ordered to be seized.
Allan didn't respond to a question on whether Facebook notified external authorities about the alleged breach, saying the committee's information was “at best partial and at worst potentially misleading.”
But, away from the document cache, lawmakers—from the U.K., Canada, Brazil, Latvia, Argentina, Ireland, Singapore, France and Belgium—spent a great deal of the session laying into Zuckerberg for failing to attend the hearing, and asking how companies like Facebook can be held accountable if their CEO ignores groups like theirs.
“I want to say how deeply disappointed we are for Mark Zuckerberg to ignore an invitation from so many nations,” said Canadian lawmaker Charlie Angus. “I don't think we've ever seen a corporation under a spotlight like this.”
Angus added: “We have to start looking at a method of holding you and your company to be accountable, because Mr. Zuckerberg, who is not here, doesn’t appear to be willing to do the job himself.”
Brendan O’Hara, a British Member of Parliament, pointedly asked of Allan: “Were you sent because you, in the entire Facebook empire, are the best person to answer all these questions, or because you’re best placed to defend the company?”
Belgian Nele Lijnen asked Allan if he was aware of the expression “sending your cat” which means “not showing up” where she's from, adding: “So we can say, dear colleagues, that Mark Zuckerberg has sent his cat to us today.”
Asked how it looked that he had to make excuses for Zuckerberg not attending, Allan admitted: “Not great, I guess is the answer... But I also have a role supporting my company as it tries to grapple with the issues we're talking about today... I am proud of the fact that we have answered thousands of questions... and appeared in front of many committee hearings around the world as a team.”
Allan offered his apologies for Zuckerberg's no-show.