Facebook chief to answer questions at European Parliament

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Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has agreed to give evidence to the European Parliament about the use of personal data, the Parliament’s president has announced.

Antonio Tajani said Mr Zuckerberg would meet leaders of political groupings and the chairman of the parliament’s civil liberties committee in Brussels “as soon as possible” – maybe as early as next week.

The billionaire social media tycoon has resisted repeated requests from the UK Parliament to answer MPs’ questions in person, despite a warning from the chairman of the Commons Culture Committee Damian Collins that he could issue a summons requiring Zuckerberg’s attendance next time he is in the UK.

Both parliaments want to question Mr Zuckerberg about the alleged use of Facebook users’ personal information to target political adverts in campaigns including the Brexit referendum.

In a tweet, Mr Tajani said: “Our citizens deserve a full and detailed explanation.

“I welcome Mark Zuckerberg’s decision to appear in person before the representatives of 500 million Europeans. It is a step in the right direction towards restoring confidence.”

Mr Zuckerberg’s meeting with European Parliament group leaders will be held behind closed doors.

But members of the civil liberties committee will have an opportunity a few weeks later for in-depth questions on issues of personal data protection in a public hearing with representatives of Facebook and other companies.

“Particular emphasis will be placed on the potential impact on electoral processes in Europe,” said the European Parliament president.

“Parliament’s priority is to ensure the proper functioning of the digital market, with a high level of protection for personal data, effective rules on copyright and the protection of consumer rights.

“Web giants must be responsible for the content they publish, including blatantly false news and illegal content.

“Freedom must always be accompanied by responsibility.”

President of the European Parliament Antonio Tajani said citizens deserve a full and detailed explanation (Gareth Fuller/PA)
President of the European Parliament Antonio Tajani said citizens deserve a full and detailed explanation (Gareth Fuller/PA)

Mr Tajani’s announcement came as the Commons Culture Committee in London questioned the chief operating officer of AggregateIQ, a Canadian company which has become caught up in controversy over targeted online advertising for the Leave campaign in the 2016 Brexit referendum.

In a barbed reference to Mr Zuckerberg, Mr Collins thanked Jeff Silvester for flying from Canada to give evidence, adding: “I wish it was as easy to get other people that are similarly part of these investigations to give testimony in the way you have.”

AIQ had previously worked for SCL Group – the British company linked to Cambridge Analytica – having been recruited by Christopher Wylie, who later blew the whistle on the alleged misuse of Facebook users’ information.

The committee heard that Facebook informed the Electoral Commission that AIQ ran 1,398 adverts on behalf of Vote Leave and other Brexit-backing campaigns between February 2016 and polling day on June 23.

But Mr Silvester challenged the claim, telling the committee that the company first met with Vote Leave on March 31 or April 1 and did not begin running ads until a couple of weeks later.

Despite assurances from AIQ that it destroyed personal voter information gathered during campaigns once a contract was over, Mr Silvester acknowledged that some data had “inadvertently” been kept in a repository of code retained by the company.

The data – which he described as contact information relating to a number of US citizens – came to light when a cyber-risk specialist accessed the “Gitlab” repository without authorisation and passed on his findings to the press, the committee heard.

He told MPs that no data on the Brexit campaign was included.

But committee member Ian Lucas pointed to files in the store which appeared to relate to Brexit, telling him: “You are a Canadian company who have got information relating to the referendum in the UK which is continuing to be stored in this Gitlab repository and another person – a third party – has gained access to it.

“That causes me great concern about your ability to protect data belonging to my constituents.”

Mr Silvester insisted: “I am not aware of any Brexit data being retained.”

Mr Collins challenged Mr Silvester over AIQ’s claim to have co-operated with the UK Information Commissioner, saying that her office had complained that the company failed to provide responses to her questions in letters.

Mr Silvester said that he would be meeting with the Information Commission immediately after the committee hearing.

“All of the direction from each of them came from them independently of each other. The ads that we were running on their behalf looked completely different,” he said.

Campaigners have claimed Vote Leave should have declared a £625,000 payment to AIQ in its spending return which would have taken it over its £7 million.

Vote Leave said it did count as it was a donation to Darren Grimes who set up BeLeave.

Mr Silvester denied that AIQ could have used a “file” provided by Vote Leave to fulfil the BeLeave brief.

“All of the direction from BeLeave came from BeLeave. We don’t share information between clients at all,” he said.

He acknowledged, however, it was possible that the online advertising they ran for Vote Leave and BeLeave could in some instances have shared the exact same audience.

“It is theoretically possible because the age ranges are not that organic but I know that the ads that we were running for BeLeave were aimed at the young people,” he said. “Vote Leave was really looking at an older audience in rural areas.”

Mr Silvester said AIQ was not connected to either the now defunct British data company, Cambridge Analytica, or its parent SCL, although it did work for SCL between 2014 and 2016.

“Aggregate IQ is a completely separate company. We have no common directors, no common employees no common owners.

Aggregate IQ is entirely its own company. We are 100% Canadian owned and operated,” he said.

Mr Silvester said AIQ had been paid £2.9 million by Vote Leave, £625,000 by BeLeave, £100,000 by Veterans for Britain and £32,000 by a DUP Brexit campaign during the referendum.

He also revealed the company did a “very short piece of work” creating a website for Michael Gove’s unsuccessful bid for the Tory leadership in 2016.

Mr Collins said that evidence from Facebook suggested that identical lists of users had been used to target ads on behalf of both Vote Leave and BeLeave, even though electoral rules bar different campaigns from co-ordinating their efforts.

“The existence of these files and them being exactly the same would suggest either that Vote Leave had given these files to BeLeave who then gave them to you, or that someone in your company used the Vote Leave files for BeLeave targeting or at least made that possible by allowing these datasets to exist on both pages,” said Mr Collins.

Mr Silvester said this was “theoretically” possible, but insisted that in fact “all the direction we got from each client was quite separate”.

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