Why Facebook pulled out of Parliamentary meeting

By Jan Vermeulen for MyBroadband

Facebook reneged on a commitment to appear before the Committee on Communications and Digital Technologies this week because, at the time, it was the only company that confirmed its attendance.

“Without more industry players and other key stakeholders present, we believed the Roundtable would not meet the objectives that were outlined to us, hence we requested that the Roundtable be postponed to a later date,” said Kojo Boakye, the Facebook public policy director for Africa.

“We believe as a Tech Industry, it is important that we collectively come together to outline how we support elections and ensure election integrity in light of the local Government Elections taking place later this year,” Boakye stated.

“The Roundtable with the Parliamentary Committee was meant to do just that.”

Facebook initially agreed to meet with South Africa’s Parliament over concerns around misinformation and disinformation before the 2021 local elections.

Former Democratic Alliance (DA) MP Phumzile Van Damme said at the time that the meeting was requested by the DA.

The reason for inviting Facebook was to establish what steps the tech giant would be taking to tackle harmful misinformation, particularly in light of the upcoming elections.

“Facebook often tailors plans for countries ahead of elections to guard against harmful misinformation,” Van Damme said. “We would like to see the same done for South Africa.”

In September 2020, the social media company implemented measures which it said were intended to help secure the integrity of the US elections by encouraging voting, connecting people with authoritative information, and reducing the risks of post-election confusion.

These included updates related to misinformation, COVID-19 and voter suppression, and a ban on new electoral, political, or social issue ads.

Facebook is also in hot water with South Africa’s Information Regulator, which has challenged the tech giant on the implementation of a new privacy policy for WhatsApp.

The Information Regulator contends that the Protection of Personal Information Act of South Africa is similar to the data privacy laws of the European Union, and that WhatsApp should therefore offer South Africans the same privacy protections as it affords users in Europe.

The chairperson of the Information Regulator, Pansy Tlakula, recently called on the South African government to help the regulator in its engagements with Facebook.

“We are fighting a giant,” Tlakula told the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee.

“They cannot willy-nilly abuse the personal information of users,” she stated.

Tlakula proposed that the Portfolio Committee on Justice and Correctional Services join forces with the Committee on Communications and Digital Technologies to ask questions of Facebook relating to the WhatsApp privacy policy changes.

With Facebook pulling out of its meeting with the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Communications and Digital Technologies, it is unclear whether the tech giant will give feedback on any of the South African government’s questions.

However, Facebook has stated that it is open to rescheduling the meeting.

“Our commitment to participating in a roundtable is well documented,” said Boakye.

He said that Facebook remains committed to engaging with national governments, and has clearly indicated to the committee that it welcomes ongoing dialogue, and a meeting at a later date.

“Facebook has teams and technology in place to protect the integrity of elections in South Africa, across Africa and around the world. We devote extensive resources to reducing the spread of misinformation and fighting election interference on our platforms,” Boakye said.

It is interesting to note that when Van Damme announced that Facebook has pulled out of appearing at the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee Meeting, she also revealed that Google had committed to attending the meeting.

MyBroadband asked Facebook whether Google’s confirmation that it will attend the meeting changes its stance, but the company declined to comment further.

Google did not respond to requests for comment.


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