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Zuckerberg skips global hearing on fake news, irking politicians

A symbolic chair was left empty at the session on disinformation. Politicians from nine countries expressed annoyance at his decision to stay away.

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Where's Zuck?

UK Parliament

Lawmakers from nine parliaments around the world met Tuesday in London to discuss the problem of disinformation on Facebook.

But one seat at the table remained starkly vacant. Behind the nameplate "Mark Zuckerberg" was an empty chair.

Zuckerberg declined repeated invitations to attend the inaugural session of the International Grand Committee on Disinformation, which took place at the UK's Parliament. His decision irked the 24 politicians in attendance, some of who had flown from as far as South America and Asia to attend. 

It's far from the first time the Facebook CEO has been conspicuous in his absence this year.

After the Cambridge Analytica data misuse revelations came to light in March, Zuckerberg failed to address the scandal for a number of days -- either with his own employees or in public. The social network chief was nowhere to be seen and cries of "where's Zuck?" echoed around the world and trended on social media. Even though Zuckerberg has since spoken publicly about the scandal, including in testimony before the US Congress, many politicians say he hasn't answered for his company's failures.

Zuckerberg rejected multiple invitations to come to London and provide evidence to the UK Parliament's fake news inquiry over the past year. He also declined opportunities to appear via web link. The Facebook boss has spoken twice publicly in Europe this year -- once for a short session in front of the European Parliament and once onstage in Paris at Vivatech, a conference organized by a PR agency, where he wasn't asked a single direct question about Cambridge Analytica.

Zuckerberg's absence at Tuesday's session sparked outrage among the attending politicians, who repeatedly referred to his failure to appear. 

Richard Allan, who is Facebook's policy director for Europe and also sits in the House of Lords, was in a chair next to the empty one set aside for Zuckerberg. (Allan was the third Facebook executive to give evidence this year to Parliament, following UK Public Policy Director Simon Milner and CTO Mike Schroepfer.)

Belgian politician Nele Lijnen asked Allan if he knew the Flemish phrase "sending your cat." "It means not showing up," she told him. "You are sitting next to the cat," she said, nodding to Zuckerberg's empty seat. Other politicians took a less humorous approach to addressing Zuckerberg's absence.

"In this room we represent over 400 million people, and to not have your CEO sit in front of us is an offense to all of them," Canadian member of Parliament Bob Zimmer told Allan. In addition to Canada, Belgium and the UK, the other countries represented were Argentina, Brazil, France, Ireland, Latvia and Singapore.

"Who gave Mr. Zuckerberg advice to blow off this committee?" asked Canadian politician Charlie Angus. Angus added that democracy had been "upended by frat boy billionaires from California," while citizens were distracted by apps and phones.

"Were you sent because, in the whole of the Facebook empire, you were believed to be best placed to answer this committee's questions, or you were best placed to defend your company?" British MP Brendan O'Hara asked. "Who decided you were the best person to come?"

"I volunteered myself," Allan replied, describing the extent to which he'd been following the disinformation discussions in parliaments around the world. "This is the stuff I work on," he said. "Our working assumption was this is the stuff that you wanted."

The answer didn't satisfy the committee, and every time Allan said that he didn't know the answer to a question or that he would follow up, the lawmakers reiterated that this was proof they needed Zuckerberg to attend.

"These are decisions that are made at a level that it appears you don't operate at within Facebook," British member of Parliament Clive Efford told Allan. "Which is why we need to speak to Mr. Zuckerberg."

Battle of wills

In a press conference following the session, Zimmer said he believed Facebook's strategy had been to deflect and that Allan had been successful in doing so. "He's weathered the storm and he's taken one for Mr. Zuckerberg," Zimmer said.

Damian Collins, a British member of Parliament and chair of the committee on disinformation, said he felt Allan had failed to answer questions satisfactorily and said he isn't giving up on getting Zuckerberg in front of the committee. 

Of all the voices calling for Zuckerberg to appear in the UK, Collins' has been the most persistent. He has repeatedly expressed dismay when Zuckerberg declines invitations to appear. Right now there is something of a standoff between the two, and Zuckerberg doesn't appear have the upper hand. 

The Facebook chief can't visit the UK for any reason without also agreeing to appear before Parliament. If he does attempt to visit the UK, he risks being issued a formal summons when he steps foot in the country. This could involve the embarrassment of being escorted to Westminster by Parliament's serjeant-at-arms. It seems unlikely that Zuckerberg would take this risk, which means that unless he gives in or unless the risk subsides, he must avoid the UK completely.

The same is true of Canada, where Zuckerberg could be held in contempt of Parliament if he enters the country but refuses to appear before politicians.

It doesn't appear the scrutiny will subside anytime soon. The UK's parliamentary fake news inquiry has concluded its evidence gathering, but it isn't decreasing pressure on the Facebook chief to appear. If anything, the pressure is ramping up. By bringing in other governments from around the world, the voices calling for Zuckerberg to appear are only getting louder.

"Ultimately the buck stops with Zuck," Collins said in a press conference. "These issues aren't going to go away and the pressure will continue to grow."

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