OTTAWA – A Facebook executive with ties to the ruling Liberals was grilled Thursday about his preferential access to senior members of the Trudeau cabinet, even though no one from the social-media giant, including himself, is a registered lobbyist in Canada.
In his appearance before a parliamentary committee, Facebook Canada’s public policy head Kevin Chan was questioned by New Democrat MP Charlie Angus on why he had yet to register as a lobbyist, given the fact he’s met senior cabinet members, including Finance Minister Bill Morneau.
Chan, ex-policy director for former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, defended himself by saying it was unnecessary for him to register since the proportion of his lobbying activities falls well short of the Lobbying Act’s 20 per cent minimum threshold.
His testimony came as policy-makers and regulators around the world examine how to better protect online data following a scandal that allegedly saw the personal information of some 87 million Facebook users — including more than 620,000 Canadians — improperly accessed for political purposes.
The House of Commons ethics committee held hearings this week to take a closer look at the breach that involves Facebook and, allegedly, the political consultancy firm Cambridge Analytica.
The companies are at the heart of an international controversy triggered by allegations that data was inappropriately harvested to help political campaigns pull off electoral wins in the U.K.’s Brexit referendum and the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.
During a tense exchange with Angus about lobbying, Chan insisted, for instance, that his meeting with Morneau strictly involved him showing the minister how to broadcast his budget speech on Facebook.
“This question does go to the heart of the company’s integrity and, quite frankly, my integrity personally — so, I appreciate the opportunity to address this head-on, if I may,” Chan said.
“To be very, very, very clear, the meeting you’re referring to with minister Morneau, again, with all due respect to all parties involved, his office reached out to Facebook. He wanted some advice on how to do Facebook Live for his budget speech.”
Angus responded by arguing that Chan’s role as the company’s leading public policy person in Canada means he’s in charge of engaging with government on a wide range of business issues that affect Facebook, which has 23 million users in the country and more than two billion worldwide.
“I mean, my light bulb breaks, I don’t call the head of General Electric to come and fix it, and yet, you show up to help him figure out how to get more ‘likes,’ ” said Angus, who insisted Chan has “enormous access” to the Liberal government.
“Isn’t that a waste of your time?”
Chan replied: “If you play it out that way, that is what I spend my time doing, sir. I’m proud of it.”
Following Chan’s appearance, the founder of ethics advocacy group Democracy Watch said he plans to file a formal complaint with the lobbying commissioner.
Duff Conacher also said in an email he intends to call for an investigation because — unlike other online giants like Google — none of Facebook’s employees are registered. He added that none of the company’s registered consultant lobbyists have disclosed any monthly communications.
Fenwick McKelvey, an assistant professor in information and communication technology policy at Concordia University, said it’s intriguing Facebook is not registered as a lobbyist, given that it’s the most-popular social network.
“It occupies a very curious position in Canada,” McKelvey said. “If it’s not engaging in lobbying, then what is it doing, given its peers seem to be engaged in lobbying?”
On Thursday, the committee also heard testimony from Robert Sherman, Facebook’s deputy chief privacy officer, who estimated that just 272 people in Canada installed an app that enabled outside firms to access information from another 622,000 Canadians.
Under questioning by MPs, Sherman said by video link from California that it’s possible a “small amount” of users’ private messages may have also been inappropriately shared as part of the breach, without their consent.
Chan echoed Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s acknowledgment this month that the company accepts responsibility for not doing enough to secure the platform and, despite recent changes, that more work needs to be done.
“I want to begin by sharing that, while we do not yet have all of the facts surrounding the situation with Cambridge Analytica, what is alleged to have occurred is a huge breach of trust to our users,” Chan said in his opening remarks.
“For that we are very sorry.”
Next month, the European Union will begin enforcing strict data privacy standards known as the General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR. It aims to help increase privacy protection for EU citizens and includes strengthened guidelines to make it easier for people to give or remove consent on firms may make use of their data.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked by reporters in London on Thursday whether he would consider adopting similar rules. He said Canada “would certainly be informed by friends and allies around the world” as his government explores ways to better protect the data of individuals.
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