Social Media

Facebook's Zuckerberg Was Right To Skip Canadian Show Trial

Abroad, legislators are in the mood to theatrically punish social media companies. CEOs shouldn’t play along.


Facebook is facing a new round of criticism this week for its refusal to send CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg to testify at a hearing in Canada's House of Commons. That criticism is unfair—their refusal to testify in front of the Canadian legislature, like their refusal to testify in the U.K.. last November—is at the very least a prudent decision. But it's arguably a principled one.

Don't get me wrong: I don't embrace the idea, currently fashionable in some chambers of government and sectors of the punditocracy, that complying with a subpoena should be fundamentally voluntary. When Zuckerberg was summoned directly by congressional lawmakers last year to answer a full range of political questions, he was right to attend. And if for some reason he had resisted, Congress would have been within its authority to subpoena him and compel him to attend.

But neither Canada, which Zuckerberg and Sandberg officially disappointed this week by sending two senior Facebook executives in their stead, nor the United Kingdom, where Zuckerberg similarly refused to appear last fall, has the same power that the U.S. government has over an American citizen and a company that's incorporated in the United States. What's more, the jurisdictional question is the least relevant aspect of those two no-shows. Far more important is the fact that the Canadian hearing, like the U.K. hearing before it, was intended to function as a kind of show trial.

How do we know it would have been a show trial? Here's the tell: "Lawmakers from nearly a dozen countries used Tuesday's forum in Ottawa to press tech companies about privacy violations, hate speech, and the spread of misinformation," Politico reported Tuesday. The U.K. hearing was similarly international—representatives from at least nine other countries attended the event last fall at the British Parliament, hoping to grill Zuckerberg about Facebook's sins against democracy and the international order. In a move perhaps inspired by Clint Eastwood, Zuckerberg was represented at both the U.K. and Canadian events by an empty chair. The parliamentarians refined Eastwood's dramaturgy by putting Zuckerberg's name on the chair.

The takeaway from both events: If a parliament is inviting lawmakers from other countries into its chambers in order to allow them to cross-examine a witness—also from another country—then whatever that process is, it isn't lawmaking or evidence-gathering. It isn't even an effort to communicate information or political positioning to one's home constituencies. Its purpose is retributive theater aimed at humiliating the presumptively guilty witness.

To be clear, most legislative hearings are political theater. Everyone familiar with the workings of representative government knows that the gathering of information is a secondary function of a legislative hearing. Its primary function is communicating to the public that legislators are on the case. But to show that, you don't need to invite parliamentarians from elsewhere in the world to quiz the witness; domestic lawmakers, assisted by staff, can do that themselves. That is, after all, part of what they're elected and paid to do. No need to import legislative guest workers.

Sometimes that political theater even works to public benefit. When Zuckerberg testified before Congress last summer, he faced a range of questions that spanned the political spectrum. Democrats quizzed the CEO about his company's handling of private information, and about political actors (domestic and foreign, legitimate and otherwise) who use the platform to sway elections and other political outcomes. Republicans in Congress, many of whom have embraced the myth that tech companies have an agenda to suppress conservative content, sought to pin Zuckerberg down on charges of political bias or the question of whether Section 230 obligates Facebook and other tech platforms to be neutral. (News Flash: Section 230 was designed to do just the opposite, for good public policy reasons.)

Zuckerberg's answers to House and Senate members weren't always perfect and they didn't make everyone happy, but quite often they were genuinely informative, both in sharing how Facebook actually operates and in communicating to the public how Facebook regards its services and its role. Disturbingly, Zuckerberg began to signal his willingness to accept more regulation, including stronger obligations to police content, in compliance with U.S. regulation as well as that of (appropriately harmonized) international regulation governing illegal content, election meddling, and privacy protection. That fullest flower from that seed of willingness was Zuckerberg's Washington Post op-ed in March.

The tone of that op-ed suggests that Zuckerberg and Facebook may be willing to bail themselves out of their current P.R. nightmare by embracing some kind of regulated-industry status. That's a bad idea not only because Facebook isn't particularly adept at content-moderation now (and likely won't be much better in the future), but also because their content-curation and privacy policies will function as a kind of private law that affects what we see and what can be known about us but without the transparency of public law and regulation.

And at this week's hearing in Canada, the executives Facebook actually stuck to their jump-and-we'll-ask-how-high message. As Politico reports, "The two Facebook executives who did show up—one based in Canada, the other in the U.S.—defended the company and promised to comply with new ethics standards and to collaborate in the development of future ones around the world."

Lost in the complaints about whether Facebook's top brass show up for show trials is the fact that Facebook is already working toward a coherent, consistent message that, depending on how it plays out, should either hearten us or concern us. Facebook's overt commitment to develop an ethical code and stick to it is a good sign—I've argued for that myself. But the risks are also serious: if the resulting code of ethics is burdensome enough to impose a high barrier to entry for future social-media competitors, Facebook's commitment will have the extra added benefit (to Facebook) of locking in its market dominance.

That doesn't have to be the result. It's possible, after all,  to create ethical frameworks that function up and down the scale—doctors and lawyers who are solo practitioners have the same capacity to obey professional-ethics imperatives that hospitals and big firms do. But that's because they were designed to scale—whatever new rules tech companies offer, or that we suggest to them, need to scale up and down as well. The tech industry, working in consultation with civil society and multistakeholder forums, shouldn't wait for governments to hand down what bureaucrats—ungrounded in direct experience of the industry—think the rules should be. A better approach is to work out the ethical rules much the way that doctors, lawyers, and other professions have done, and evolve them, in consultation as situations and problems change.

Mark Zuckerberg is the whipping boy of the moment. But it may be Jack Dorsey of Twitter tomorrow, or Sundar Pichai of Google or Apple's Tim Cook the day after that. And when (it's probably not "if") one of the other CEOs angers lawmakers, it will be heard as the other shoe dropping for Big Tech. That's why, if Facebook and other tech companies who want to get themselves out of the legislative crosshairs, both here and abroad, need to be proactive, not reactive, and to position themselves as vigorous tribunes and advocates for user interests, not just targets for complaints. We've already seen examples of this, such as Apple's resistance to government demands to hack iPhone security and Google's game-changing adoption of the transparency-report paradigm. If the companies apply the same kind of creativity to becoming users' advocates that they already have applied to feeding users what (they imagine) we want, Zuckerberg and other CEOs will start actively seeking opportunities to show up at more hearings. They'll seize the chance to brag.

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  1. Haha. At least one of these nitwit SJW CEOs learned something.

    “When you play a game of thrones you win or you die.”

    1. Hopefully we will soon begin to punish the “social media companies” here in the United States as well, along with the various individuals who use their platforms to purvey inappropriate “parody” and other forms of criminal “speech.” Here at NYU, we firmly believe all of these “online” actors need to be held accountable for their conduct, especially when they do anything that impinges on the reputation of one of our distinguished colleagues. See the documentation of our nation’s leading criminal “satire” case at:

  2. Why can the US compel a citizen to testify to the House? (Not saying my home of Canada is any better, of course)

    1. Because the fifth amendment means no more than the first, second, or fourth.

  3. And if for some reason he had resisted, Congress would have been within its authority to subpoena him and compel him to attend.

    Why? They aren’t lords. It’s not a royal court or even a judicial court. These people are supposedly simply representing other citizens. No other citizen has the power to summon you to their chambers for questioning. Why should members of Congress have this ability?

    1. No other citizen has the power to summon you to their chambers for questioning.

      FBI & police “citizens” are two off the top of my head that can do exactly that. I’m sure there’s lots of other “citizens” from other agencies that can fit into that sentence. Interesting to draw the line here, of all places.

      1. IRS auditors?

      2. If it is a summons and not an arrest, that has to come from a judge IINM. The power to arrest is (or at least it used to be) a power that all citizens possess.

  4. I’m pretty sure what Canada and many European governments want is for Facebook to serve as a gatekeeper. Having a non-government entity use extralegal means to censor speech they don’t like, taking the responsibility away from them. They blame Facebook for somehow affecting elections (!) since having a platform for people to share their ideas is always dangerous to the status quo. So they want to make Facebook work for them.

    It’s also kind of the opposite of Zuckerberg calling for the Federal government to regulate Facebook. He wants to outsource the responsibility of policing his content so he doesn’t have to pay so many moderators to watch for illegal content. Having the government moderate his platform for him is just a way of getting the taxpayers to subsidize Facebook.

  5. As a Canadian, I have no problem with that punk dissing Parliament.

    Our country is currently run by soft tyrants and a douche bag.

    The irony is this PM has been found guilty of four ethics violations and is embroiled in a major scandal with SNC where he tried to undermine the rule of law. Moreover, is seeking to silent voices through his bull shit Digital Charter, introduced outrageous laws like Bill 69 and C-16 and has engaged in gaffe after gaffe as well as arrogantly mishandle endless issues. A true individual who has no business running an ice cream shop let alone a country.

    And these idiots going after Facebook are going to ‘defend democracy’?

    Get the fuck out of here.

    1. No offense to ice-cream shop owners. Some of them are artisans!

    2. It was my understanding that he was subpoenaed to answer for why he sold the data from Canadian users against the express wishes of those users.
      In this regard he should be answerable for breaking Canadian laws.

  6. You know who else skipped show trials?

    1. Christians fed to the lions?

    2. The producer who greenlighted Manimal?

  7. “A better approach is to work out the ethical rules much the way that doctors, lawyers, and other professions have done, and evolve them, in consultation as situations and problems change.”

    If lawyers or doctors violate the rules they can be banned from the medical or legal professions.

    Do we want some sort of cartel empowered to ban wrongthinking companies from the Internet?

    You know who else tried to regulate the media, Mr. Godwin?

    1. Every government ever?

      1. Look, I’m just trying to troll the (bleep) out of Mike Godwin.

  8. Lots of interesting points here ….

    To draw the line between the show trials hearings merely because Canada and the UK invited foreign legislators to the show is pretty weak. The lack of foreigners doesn’t turn the US hearings into noble endeavors.

    For that matter, court trials are themselves show trials, since all the real work, both questioning witnesses and defendants and chasing down leads and finding evidence, is all done outside the courtroom long before everyone is yanked into court for the showy part of the trial.

    If I were inventing a redress system from scratch, I’d require all known parties to have a stake in every aspect of it as soon as possible. As soon as the CSI people find fingerprints or video or witnesses leading to a suspect, that suspect should be allowed to review everything that goes on. Witness interviews should be handled with all parties (or their representatives, natch) on hand. The idea of waiting six months or a year before the defense can question a witness under oath merely shows pathetic bias into thinking that police are presumed honest and correct and never make mistakes.

  9. This is what Zuckerberg should have been doing all along. If he wants any respect from me, he’ll continue to do this at every step.

    I don’t care if Zuckerberg is banning conservatives at 800x the rate of any other ideology, the last thing we want is the post office regulating the internet. Zuckerberg wanted to be in bed with these people– he let them in the door, he cozied up with them and now they’re calling at all hours of the night. Hopefully he’s learning his lesson.

  10. both here and abroad, need to be proactive, not reactive, and to position themselves as vigorous tribunes and advocates for user interests, not just targets for complaints.

    I don’t envy them at all. Snowflakes complain that the platforms aren’t banning enough problematic content quickly enough. Those caught up in the infuriatingly vague and arbitrary bans are complaining that the bans are infuriatingly vague and arbitrary.

    Honestly, I think this is the beginning of the end for the big social media platforms. What’s next I know not.

  11. In regards to Facebook’s “Community Standards”.
    If they had existed in the 1960″s, we would still have Segregation.

  12. nice article and good content. thanks for sharing.
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