Canadian MPs are warning that Facebook’s top officials could be found in contempt of Parliament if they continue to ignore a subpoena to testify in Ottawa this week.
Starting today, the House of Commons’s privacy and ethics committee will be joined by elected officials from around the world to discuss data collection, privacy online and democracy.
The committee had extended invites to some of the most well-known tech players, including Facebook, Twitter and Google. The mix of MPs, senators and government officials from around the world are to join Canada’s privacy and ethics committee as they hear from witnesses.
Earlier this month the committee voted to subpoena Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg and chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg to appear as witnesses.
If they continue to ignore that summons, Conservative MP Bob Zimmer said the ethics committee has talked about finding them in contempt of Parliament.
“I don’t think it would send a good message internationally about, you know, blowing off an entire country of 36 million people,” said Zimmer, the chair of the commons committee.
“The bottom line is that they show up and answer our questions, so my hope is that still happens.”
If Zuckerberg and Sandberg are no shows this week, the committee would first have to vote on a motion recommending a contempt finding before it could go to the floor of the House of Commons for a vote.
Finding someone guilty of obstructing Parliament is a rare move in Canada.
A study from the Library of Parliament found that, while “allegations of contemptuous behaviour are made frequently, findings of contempt are unusual.”
Also, while the House of Commons has a range of penalties to punish contempt, a “finding of contempt is often considered sufficient in itself,” notes the library.
Even if it’s only a symbolic finding, it could send a message, said NDP MP and committee vice-chair Charlie Angus.
“If they believe that Canadian lawmakers are so inconsequential then that is contempt of Parliament,” said Angus.
“You have a company that acts with complete disregard for the democratic systems that we’ve put in place… To me that’s just unbelievable that a company could be that dismissive and I think they have to be held accountable.”
Liberal MP Michel Picard, another committee member, said it would show how seriously Canada takes the issue.
“We are not hunting companies. We are demanding as much collaboration as possible,” he said.
“We need those companies to work more with us.”
Facebook would not confirm to CBC whether Zuckerberg or Sandberg will come to Ottawa this week.
“We share the committee’s desire to keep people safe and to hold companies like ours accountable,” said spokesperson Erin Taylor.
“We look forward to answering their questions and remain committed to working with world leaders, governments, and industry experts to address these complex issues.”
Zimmer says the grand committee hopes to come up with a communiqué at the end of their three-day session to outline best practices when it comes to protecting citizens’ rights in the age of big data.
No new legislation coming
The international gathering will also discuss mounting calls to break up Facebook, said Angus, an idea that’s received traction after Chris Hughes, who helped found Facebook with Zuckerberg, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times arguing that the $514-billion company has grown too powerful.
It’s a conversation Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould said she’ll be watching.
“The rest of the world is starting to think about this as well, because I’m not sure if there’s been a time in history when so few companies were really responsible for so much of the activity that we do every single day, from shopping to banking to searching for information to communicating with others,” she said.
Besides Canadian MPs, the grand committee is made up of politicians from the United Kingdom, Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, France, Ireland, Latvia, Singapore. Ecuador, Mexico, Morocco and Trinidad and Tobago.
Facebook, Twitter, Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Apple are all slotted to appear, but so far the witness list just says ‘to be determined.”
Among those who have already agreed to appear at the grand committee are Jim Balsillie, former chief executive of Blackberry, Ellen Weintraub, chair of the U.S. Federal Election Commission, and Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien.
It’ll be the second time the international coalition has met. They gathered last year in the U.K., where Zuckerberg also did not show up.
This week’s meetings come days after Ottawa laid out its digital charter, a list of principles to guide an overhaul of Canada’s laws governing the internet and digital privacy.
However, Gould said no legislation is coming until after the next election.
“I think we’ve run out of runway with regards to legislating before the House rises in June,” she said.
Last month Therrien announced plans to take Facebook to Federal Court after finding Facebook had violated Canada’s privacy law by sharing the personal information of Canadian Facebook users in the course of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
Facebook has disputed the report’s findings.
Cambridge Analytica is accused of harvesting data of more than 50 million Facebook users worldwide to create social media strategies to support U.S. President Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign.
The grand committee gathering kicks off Monday night at 7 p.m. ET.