Damian Collins vs. Mark Zuckerberg

28 Nov 2018  |  Raymond Snoddy 
Damian Collins vs. Mark Zuckerberg

In holding Facebook to account, Damian Collins' “Grand Committee” of lawmakers from nine countries was a theatrical master-stroke - as was using one of the tricks of the broadcasting trade to highlight the non-appearance of Zuckerberg

Anyone interested in American politics, or even the future of the world, is waiting with keen anticipation for the outcome of the Mueller inquiry and its effect on the Presidency of Donald J. Trump.

It is now clear that the UK should have had its own formal judge-led inquiry into a referendum process that at the very least appears to have been corrupted. It would have looked in detail at how the referendum money was spent, where it came from and the extent of Russian involvement in the online political battle to influence voters' minds.

It is already almost beyond debate that one arm of Putin aggression against the West and its values is an internet battle, exploiting the porous social media to divide and destabilise the West with fake news, prejudice and lies.

Can there be any more important subject worthy of scrutiny?

The Russians have already struck gold, certainly through the election of Trump, and many would argue with Brexit as well. In both cases the degree of illegitimate influence would not have to have been very great to make a significant difference to the outcome.

At the very least they are questions that should have been addressed in a coherent, sustained, official way.

Instead of a Mueller with all the investigatory powers of the state behind him, we have to make do with the rather typical British piecemeal approach.

In place of a swirl of indictments, with more to come in the US, we have Damian Collins (pictured, below) and his Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, the dogged and sometimes lonely journalism of Carole Cadwalladr, and the Electoral Commission.

Collins was unable to get Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg before his international hearing.

Cadwalladr has won journalistic awards but has also had to face online abuse from some -such as the BBC's Andrew Neil, who really should have known better.

The best the Electoral Commission could do under the rules prevailing at the time was fine the Vote Leave campaign £61,000 for breeches of electoral law and refer the matter to the police, who are showing little sign of springing into action.

It’s something. Best efforts are being made and should be applauded. But in a very literal sense it doesn’t apparently add up. Alas the dots are not sufficiently connected.

Why has there been so little - if any - clamour for a judicial inquiry that could also have included looking at fake news and the work of another unconnected piece of late but praiseworthy serendipity, the Cairncross inquiry into the sustainability of high quality journalism.

The reasons are obvious. In the political domain the Premiership of Theresa May is determined to ram home her version of Brexit at almost any cost and to the exclusion of almost anything else.

In the media the majority of the Brexit-supporting national press have little enthusiasm for undermining the cause they placed so many heavy bets on. This is presumably why Cadwalladr, Cambridge Analytica and the activities of Nigel Farage have had less impact outside the ranks of The Guardian and The Observer than they might have done.

At least you can’t fault Damian Collins for using what power and influence he does have to maximum effect.

His “Grand Committee” of lawmakers from nine countries was a theatrical master-stroke, as was using one of the tricks of the broadcasting trade – empty-chairing - to highlight the non-appearance of Zuckerberg.

There was substance too in the form of internal emails from a Facebook engineer four years ago warning that Russians were exploiting security loopholes to harvest billions of items of data a day, the same security flaws that Cambridge Analytica used two years later.

Collins had the email because of the imaginative use of the powers of compulsion select committees have in this jurisdiction – up to and including, at least in theory, bringing people to explain themselves before the Bar of the House, or even historically imprisonment in a tower by the House of Lords.

What the Committee did do is use its powers to seize in the UK internal Facebook documents, obtained in a legal process by a company called Six4Three - which is suing Facebook in California.

So far Facebook has claimed that the comments by the Facebook engineer were examined and, according to the social media giant, found to be untrue or exaggerated.

We shall see. Collins the Parliamentarian, using the perfectly legal tactics of a respectable Wikileaks, has a cache of the email and you can be certain more revelations are on the way.

Meanwhile, the Daily Mail had no space to cover the serious allegations made at the Grand Committee hearing. Instead it sent acerbic sketch writer Quentin Letts to cover and ridicule the empty chairing of Zuckerberg by claiming that the posting of the picture on the internet was somehow a “littler fakenewsey in itself.”

Err, no. Zuckerberg really wasn’t there. Collins was naturally exposed as that terrible thing, according to the Daily Mail worldview: “a Remainer.”

Despite the piecemeal nature of the investigation, maybe things can be made to add up if critics of the social media – and Facebook in particular - continue to follow the money.

The value of the social media giants is down by $1 trillion because of worries about a possible downturn in the US economy and the growing threat of tighter regulation.

Since March, when the CA allegations first broke, the value of Facebook is down by $100 billion, although there are plenty more left where those billions came from.

You know things are bad when the tax affairs of Amazon and Starbucks make the splash in The Sun - as in Chelsea footballer N’Goto Kanto paying more in tax than either of them.

The good news is that Damian Collins, Carole Cadwalladr and the Electoral Commission have managed to keep serious issues hugely in the public interest in the public domain and in those media outlets interested in such matters.

They will become more important, not less, as we continue to stagger towards some form of Brexit – or not, as the case may be.

When Mueller reports we will probably start to see what we have missed from the formal inquiry we never had and now probably never will.

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TobyBeresford, CEO, rise.global on 30 Nov 2018
“While I liked that this debate is gaining air time, I thought the DCMS committee largely missed the point though in its petulant tone, whining about Zuck's non-appearance and their derivative questions raking over old issues like CA's abuse of access to friend data.

At stake here is the continued existence of the "free internet" - Facebook and others need to be brought on board as a partner in creating the regulatory environment that stops countries like India and Uganda wanting to follow China's lead with a great firewall. To do this, those governments in the committee need to invest heavily in digital governance and justice - something they've largely shied away from to date.

No wonder organisations like Facebook have had to grow into the vacuum left by government. As Lord Allan said in one of his answers - "we'd really rather it if you made the arbitration and handed us the decision, rather than us having to do it ourselves."

Just one example, it is lunacy that in 2018 it should be a private company, Facebook, that is the global champion (and enforcer) of the need for "real names" and "real identity" online. Surely identity verification is a crucial job for a central government if ever there was one and the first place you can begin to establish a just online environment.

Overall it was the wrong questions at the right time. An opportunity missed!”