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Facebook under fire: What to expect at 'unprecedented' UK parliamentary hearing

Alanna Petroff
Senior Economics Correspondent at Yahoo Finance UK
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg declined to face questioning at Tuesday’s “International Grand Committee” hearing in the UK. Photo: Marlene Awaad/Getty Images

Prepare for political fireworks on Tuesday as politicians from around the world gather for an “unprecedented” hearing into disinformation, fake news and privacy on Facebook’s platform, hosted by the UK parliament.

UK and international parliamentarians from Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Ireland, Latvia and Singapore are gathering to grill Facebook’s vice president of policy solutions, Richard Allan, at 11:30am local time (6:30am ET).

The group, called an “International Grand Committee,” tried to bring in Facebook (FB) CEO Mark Zuckerberg to answer questions, but he declined twice.

The UK’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, which is leading the hearing, is seeking more information about Facebook’s data privacy, safety, security and sharing features as concerns grow about how the social media platform has mishandled foreign interference, user privacy and the spread of fake news.

“The recent New York Times investigation raises further questions about how recent data breaches were allegedly dealt with within Facebook, and when the senior leadership team became aware of the breaches and the spread of Russian disinformation,” the committee said in a written statement ahead of the hearing.

MPs will be “fishing for whatever they can get” on Facebook, Alex DeGroote, media analyst and founder of DeGroote Consulting, told Yahoo Finance UK.

“I would expect some political grandstanding tomorrow and I would expect Facebook … to resist any provocations,” he said.

The event is being held just days after Britain’s parliament seized confidential Facebook documents from the developer of a now-defunct tech firm, a move that was considered unusually aggressive.

Damian Collins, in charge of the hearing and committee, said in a Sunday tweet that he had reviewed the documents.

“Under UK law & parliamentary privilege we can publish papers if we choose to as part of our inquiry,” he said. 

Facebook has cautioned Collins that these documents, from 2013 and 2014, were compiled as part of a “meritless” legal case that the small tech company was bringing against Facebook, and the documents were “sealed” by the American courts, meaning they weren’t supposed to be seen by outsiders.

DeGroote said he didn’t expect the committee would publish the documents on Tuesday as they would need more time to digest and analyse the information.

The UK and European Union have aligned in their desire to rein in the powers of big tech in recent years, with both sides speaking out on issues related to privacy, disinformation and tax dodging.

“Europe is having a nightmare with tech right now … We love them as consumers, but don’t know how to deal with them in terms of capitalism and societal change,” said DeGroote.

With files from the Associated Press