The Guest Blog

Guest blog post by David Ibsen, Executive Director of the not-for-profit Counter Extremism Project (CEP).

Just over a month ago, Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg survived his much anticipated first appearance before the U.S. Congress, in large measure because Senators and Representatives tried to focus too narrowly on how technology works, rather than how it has unleashed a host of maladies on an unsuspecting public.

Today, Mr. Zuckerberg will be questioned by the heads of the political groups and a handful of influential Members of the European Parliament – behind closed doors. This came as a surprise to a lot of European policymakers and the 2.7 million European Facebook users who have been affected by the company’s most recent data scandal.

The American Congress and the European Parliament deserve enormous credit for convincing the CEO of one of the world’s biggest companies to testify but the Members who will be questioning him should learn from the US example. The combination of granting too much defence and limiting each questioner to five minutes or less made it too easy for Mr. Zuckerberg to rely on his highly-polished talking points and carefully crafted spin to deflect unwanted questions and prevent thorough airing of issues like Facebook’s troubled business model and its insufficient efforts to crack down on the misuse of its platform. Different ground rules or even the additional presence of Facebook engineers would have resulted in a more serious examination of Facebook’s endemic policy failures.

Juxtapose these U.S. congressional hearings with hearings before U.K. parliamentarians, in particular those sitting on the Home Affairs Committee, who like Europe’s policymakers possess an impressive body of knowledge and experience with the inner workings of the tech industry. For example, in an exchange between Labour MP Yvette Cooper and Google’s Public Policy Manager Will McCants in March, Ms. Cooper repeatedly and specifically pointed out that content from the proscribed group, National Action, remained online for a year, despite being flagged at least seven times. Mr. McCants was forced to apologize numerous times, and it became painfully clear that he was unable to provide any explanation for why the content still remained on YouTube. Zuckerberg is surely insisting on a closed-door hearing in part to avoid a similarly embarrassing spectacle.

The focus of the MEPs must be similarly honed to ensure Facebook and the tech industry as a whole is remaining transparent and accountable to the public. MEPs do not need to become Silicon Valley engineers or developers to hold the tech industry to account. Rather, it is about having the foundational knowledge to focus on simple, key questions and pursue them exhaustively with tech representatives until there is a clear response.

By using simple and direct questions, it is possible to reveal the dubiousness of Mr. Zuckerberg’s two key claims. For instance, Facebook should clarify exactly what 99% represents, e.g., 99% of how much extremist content on the platform? 1% of a large number is still significant. During Mr. Zuckerberg’s testimony in April, the Counter Extremism Project (CEP) was able to find ISIS and Hezbollah – both internationally sanctioned terrorist organisation – accounts on the platform. Facebook must clearly state how much extremist content is currently on the platform in order to give context and substance to Mr. Zuckerberg’s 99% claim.

Moreover, in the Internet age 99% is not good enough. There are cases – for example, incitement to violence and child pornography – where we can ill afford to accept less than 100%.

Secondly, CEP Senior Advisor and the world’s leading expert in digital forensics, Dr. Hany Farid has noted that Mr. Zuckerberg’s views on AI are overly optimistic and assumes that advances in AI will continue at their recent pace. History has shown that such predictions about what can be achieved via technology are often overstated. For example, in 2004 Microsoft founder Bill Gates infamously promised to eliminate spam by 2006. Mr. Zuckerberg also ignores the fact that these same AI systems can are being used by adversaries to circumvent detection. The public and lawmakers need to maintain a critical eye on tech’s overreaching and overly optimistic statements.

MEPs are taking a big step forward in bringing Mark Zuckerberg before the European Parliament. Now they must learn from the US and UK experience and deliver for a public that is extremely concerned about Facebook and tech’s real-world impact on public safety and democracy. While they need not be technical engineers and developers, they must dig into these issues in new ways and begin by asking the most simple and fundamental questions to get answers, not more spin.

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