Facebook’s no good, very bad day in front of Singapore’s Select Committee on fake news

Several hours after Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg issued a public apology over the exploitation of user data in the ongoing Cambridge Analytica storm, Facebook’s privacy, safety and advertising policy director Simon Milner had to face a highly fatiguing battle of his own in a special Singapore parliamentary hearing today.

The Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods – Causes, Consequences and Countermeasures kicked off a public hearing at 2pm. Executives from internet giants Facebook, Google, and Twitter were asked to testify before a special committee, a diverse assembly of 10 Members of Parliament (MPs) selected to consider perspectives presented by experts and stakeholders while ruminating plans to battle fake news online.

Prior to today’s hearing, officials from the three global tech giants had already expressed concern about the Singapore government’s potential plan to introduce a new law that targets the threat of fake news.

Facebook’s head of public policy for Southeast Asia Alvin Tan expressed the belief that legislation is not the best approach to addressing fake news, reported The Business Times. Twitter’s director of Public Policy for Asia Pacific Kathleen Ren noted that “no single company, governmental or non-governmental actor, should be the arbiter of truth”.

AFP’s Elizabeth Law and BBC’s Leisha Santorelli attended the hearing, and according to their live updates on Twitter, it was Milner who had a really, really, tough time.

For three whole hours, he was grilled by Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam, who questioned the Facebook executive over the massive user data breach and its exploitation by data analysis company Cambridge Analytica.

A quick primer on the Cambridge Analytica saga: Cambridge Analytica (CA) is a data-mining and data-analysis firm that participated in American politics and worked for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016. Dr. Aleksandr Logan, a lecturer at the University of Cambridge, created a Facebook app that claimed to be a research tool for psychologists by offering personality predictions to users — it required access to user profiles, locations, preferences, and their friends’ data as well.

Dr. Logan, however, sent the user data he collected to CA without user permission. The misuse of data, bolstered by CA’s microtargetting capabilities, is now suspected of having played significant parts in the American presidential and Brexit elections. President Trump’s infamous former chief strategist Steve Bannon was also reportedly vice president of CA’s board.

The data breach and its possible interference in elections were what Minister Shanmugam crossed swords with Milner about.

This went on for hours, before Shanmugam finally moved on to the issue of fake news. At some point in time, a seemingly exasperated Milner pleaded for the minister to question someone else. He even appealed to committee chairman Charles Chong, who shot Milner’s request down.

The highlight of the hearing arrives — Milner is unsure if any Facebook users in Singapore had their personal information leaked to Dr. Kogan and CA.

 

The hearing is currently ongoing in Parliament, and we’ll update this story as more details emerge.

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