Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg may have snubbed another invitation to testify on privacy and democracy before an international panel on Tuesday, but the meetings have yielded a silver lining.
Senior Minister of State for Law Edwin Tong said the meetings have helped the nine participating countries come to an agreement on how to tackle disinformation and fake news.
This is likely to prevent tech companies from taking different positions with different governments, and playing off one against another.
“The way we do this – in a concerted way – gives tech companies fewer opportunities to arbitrage the differences between each jurisdiction to their benefit,” he said at a press conference in Ottawa, Canada on Tuesday.
He said that meeting with different lawmakers helped Singapore to consider various perspectives, which it took on board when crafting its fake news law. The law was passed earlier this month.
This marked the second meeting of the International Grand Committee, which first convened in London last November.
Its members include parliamentarians from countries such as Australia, Argentina, Latvia and the United Kingdom.
Earlier on Tuesday, Canadian lawmakers fumed when Mr Zuckerberg and Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg failed to show up at the panel for the second year in a row, sending two representatives in their stead.
The lawmakers later slapped the duo with a standing summons to appear before the committee if they were to set foot in the country.
Other tech giants, like Google and Twitter, also sent representatives.
In one hearing, Facebook’s head of policy for Canada Kevin Chan and global policy head Neil Potts were grilled by Mr Tong about the incendiary sermons by a Sri Lankan terrorist bombing leader.
The videos were on the platform for at least six months prior to the Easter bombings last month.
The representatives agreed that the videos amounted to hate speech, and would be a clear breach of their own policies for such content to remain on the platforms.
However, they could not explain why they had not been removed, and why their various mechanisms – including a team of fact-checkers and artificial intelligence – were unable to pick up the videos.
This was in spite of news reports which showed that the local Muslim community had flagged these videos to Facebook.
Mr Tong also pressed the representatives on how Facebook was to be trusted to regulate its own content.
“I put it to you that such content, being sensational, inciting fear, violence, hatred, conspiracy theories… is what drives eyeballs to your platforms, and that is the engine room of your profit mechanism,” he said.
Mr Potts said: “I reject the premise full-heartedly.”
Singapore Senior Parliamentary Secretary Sun Xueling also attended the meetings.
In a separate panel, she asked if the design of social media platforms helped extremist views to thrive.
Venture capitalist and former Facebook adviser Roger McNamee agreed, and added that an important part of the problem was online anonymity.
This inherent trait about the Internet has “enabled disaffected people to find one another and organise themselves in a way they could not in the real world”, he said.
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