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Will Zuck face UK's Parliament? This man is fighting to make it happen

Damian Collins, a member of Parliament, is a thorn in the Facebook CEO's side, and he's not planning to stop poking anytime soon.

Damian Collins

Mark Zuckerberg and British MP Damian Collins have been stuck in a tug of war for two months now, and neither wants to give in.

Collins, a Conservative member of Parliament representing Folkestone and Hythe since 2010, wants the Facebook CEO to answer questions on the Cambridge Analytica data scandal. Zuckerberg? Well, he's not so keen.

Collins chairs Parliament's Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) committee, which began investigating the issue of fake news almost a year ago. Initially the inquiry was scheduled to conclude at the beginning of 2018, but the date kept getting pushed back. Then this spring all hell broke loose when Facebook disclosed that personal data belonging to 87 million users had been gathered by Cambridge Analytica, a data consultancy firm best known for working on Donald Trump's presidential election campaign.

Almost immediately, Collins wrote to Zuckerberg asking him to give evidence to the committee. When the reply came in late March, it was a resounding "no."

The Facebook chief went on to testify before the US Congress in April and the European Parliament in May. But when it comes to the UK, he stood his ground. In his place, Zuckerberg sent his right-hand man, Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer. But Schroepfer's answers didn't satisfy the committee

In May, Collins again asked Zuckerberg to appear, offering to conduct the session via video link if necessary. If Zuckerberg refused to be questioned, Collins said he'd look into issuing a formal summons that would legally compel the CEO to appear before Parliament the next time he entered the UK.

In his latest letter to Facebook, dated May 21, Collins reiterated the importance of Zuckerberg answering the committee's questions. The letter states:

"If Mark Zuckerberg truly recognises the 'seriousness' of these issues as they say they do, we would expect that he would want to appear in front of the Committee and answer questions that are of concern not only to Parliament, but Facebook's tens of millions of users in this country."

He asked Facebook to respond by this coming Monday, June 4.

Ahead of that deadline, CNET sat down with Collins at his Westminster office to find out why Zuckerberg owes it to the UK to appear before the committee and just how serious he is about issuing that formal summons. The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

CNET: What was your takeaway from the European Parliament session?
Collins: It was a slightly farcical situation, where the MEPs didn't have very long to question him. The format led to the time spent asking questions being longer than the time spent answering them, and Mark Zuckerberg was able to avoid answering really any questions that would have been helpful. At the end of the session we didn't know anything new, and I think that was why it was such a wasted opportunity.

Of the points that were raised within the room by MEPs (members of the European Parliament), what were those that resonated most closely with the questions you've put to Zuckerberg?
There are a number of quite important areas that were raised and weren't quite resolved. British Conservative MEP Syed Kamall in particular made an important point about the way in which Facebook gathers data about non-Facebook users and about Facebook users when they're not on Facebook. And I think it's a really legitimate question.

On the issue about transparency and democracy, which came up... we still don't know whether there were other developers like Aleksandr Kogan that accessed data and passed it onto third parties. It's been more than two months since the Kogan data breach went public. It's been three and a half years since Facebook knew about it, and yet they still can't answer those questions.

What was your reaction to hearing that Zuckerberg was going to be in Europe giving evidence to the European Parliament, but that he wasn't going to come here to the UK?
It's very frustrating. I think because he's in Europe he should come to the UK. The Cambridge Analytica-Aleksandr Kogan data breach has been the gateway into this issue for many people. The work was done in Cambridge University. The company that benefited from it is headquartered in London.

A million UK Facebook users were affected by Aleksandr Kogan's work, and we know as well that there was intent from the Russians to target voters in the UK with advertising through Facebook. The extent of that is greater than Facebook initially acknowledged it was, and I think we have the right to question him about those things too.

The investigation and the story was broken by a UK newspaper, who Facebook threatened to take legal action against in the process. So there's a particular interest that people in this country have because of the involvement of British newspapers, British academics, British companies in this story.  

BRITAIN-US-FACEBOOK-PRIVACY-DATA

Protestors demonstrate outside the London meeting where Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer was questioned in April.

Daniel Leal-Olivas / AFP/Getty Images

After engaging in this back and forth with the company for several months, do you now have some sense of why Zuckerberg is reluctant to come here?
The issue is the format. The trouble with the way Mark Zuckerberg has consented to be questioned so far is that the length of the hearings is actually immaterial, it's the format of the hearing that makes questioning very difficult, because none of the members have had any time to go back and question him.

If you look at the hearing in the Senate, Sen. (Kamala) Harris from California posed some really tough questions. If she'd have 20 minutes rather than four minutes, I think that session would have been a lot more effective. And I think what our committee does is allow the members to question the witnesses for sustained periods and that makes it much harder for people to avoid answering questions. But the purpose of the sessions is to try and get answers and shine a light on issues and problems. We're not looking to trip people up, we're looking to try and get to the truth.

Do you think the MEPs questioning him last Tuesday shared those frustrations?
Facebook might think it has been very clever. They've given the impression of openness, but they've done it in a way Mark Zuckerberg can easily control. In the European Parliament he could more or less pick or choose what he answered. There wasn't enough time to answer the questions he was asked. And in the Senate and in Congress, if he was asked a very technical question he could just run the clock down by giving quite a long technical answer.

But that's not done him any good, because the impression that's come from that is this has just been a PR stunt. It's not been a serious exercise of him being questioned.  

XINHUA PHOTO WEEKLY CHOICES (CN)

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before Congress in early April.

Xinhua News Agency/Getty

Zuckerberg has on occasion deferred questions by saying he would follow up later. Are you confident that if he gave evidence in Parliament, he could satisfy the outstanding questions that you have?
With Mark Zuckerberg, I can't believe there are things of importance he doesn't know. If he chooses not to answer the questions in the session it might because he doesn't know what to say rather than he doesn't know what the answer is.

There are quite fundamental questions for the company about the knowledge they had about the vulnerability of user data. These concerns were widely known and people say that the only reason the privacy settings changed in 2014 was for commercial reasons, to give Facebook proprietary control of the data.

Those decisions were taken to optimise the commercial value of Facebook as an advertising platform. And these are important strategic decisions the company took, which obviously Mark Zuckerberg is central to.

As the UK's fake news inquiry concludes, is your intention to create an ongoing dialogue with Facebook and social media companies more widely?
I hope that it does. Raising these questions is in no way saying tech is a problem or we're anti-tech in any way, it's just that... there should be some rules and regulations applied to this sector too, and in some ways that's part of the journey we've been on.

But I think that's a debate which is being had in lots of other countries too. While we all have our different jurisdictional roles, this is a global problem and we need to think together about how we can solve that.

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