Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a joint hearing of the Commerce and Judiciary Committees on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, April 10, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Andrew Harnik

Tech giants called to testify in Ottawa in international probe of fake news

Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook are invited to attend

Executives from some of the world’s largest digital and social media firms have been invited to appear before an international committee on disinformation and “fake news” when it meets in Ottawa this May.

The “grand committee” of elected politicians from nine countries, including the U.K. and Canada, has already been stymied in its efforts to hear from some of them at earlier meetings in London.

Invitations for a meeting scheduled for May 28 in Ottawa have been sent to Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook, Google CEO Sundar Pichai, Apple CEO Tim Cook, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, as well as executives from WhatsApp and Snapchat, among others.

Zuckerberg declined several requests to appear at the first meeting of the committee in November, sending a Facebook vice-president instead.

This time, alternates will not be permitted, says Canadian Conservative MP Bob Zimmer, who chairs the House of Commons ethics committee, citing “inadequate” answers to questions at the November meeting.

“I am hopeful that these executives will take advantage of this unique opportunity to speak to representatives from around the globe about what their platforms are doing to ensure the privacy of our citizens,” Zimmer said in a news release.

READ MORE: Not much Elections Canada can do about fake news spread about candidates

“I am also looking forward to hearing from them about what is being done to stop the spread of disinformation and how they are protecting users from the threats of manipulation online.”

The meeting of the committee comes amid warnings from the Canadian Centre for Cyber Security that foreign actors are likely to try to manipulate Canadian opinion with malicious online activity during this election year.

Considerable evidence has pointed to online Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

The international panel was struck as part of a British committee’s probe that began in 2017 into the influence of false information online. That probe became heightened in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica data controversy, which involved the alleged unauthorized use of some 87 million Facebook profiles globally — including those of more than 600,000 Canadians.

In its final report, published earlier this week, the U.K. Parliamentary committee called for an independent regulator to be created to police social media sites, singling out Facebook in particular for breaching privacy and competition laws.

“Companies like Facebook should not be allowed to behave like ‘digital gangsters’ in the online world, considering themselves to be ahead of and beyond the law,” the report said. It also included some harsh criticism aimed at Zuckerberg, accusing him of contempt of U.K. Parliament and of the international grand committee for refusing to appear.

The Trudeau government has announced measures to counter possible election interference in Canada, including a panel of high level bureaucrats that will alert the public if they flag any concerns about online activities that could be seen as election meddling once the federal election campaign officially begins later this year.

Teresa Wright, The Canadian Press

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