Facebook and Twitter duck parliamentary questions

Google attends foreign affairs examination while social media companies decline to give evidence

Facebook and Twitter faced further criticism on Tuesday for refusing to give evidence on how they deal with foreign governments.

The major social media companies were condemned by members of Parliament for avoiding scrutiny from the Foreign Affairs Committee.

While Google had submitted itself to questions on important information issues, the two social media companies “should be rightly stepping forward and recognise that they have a role to play,” Alicia Kearns, MP, told the hearing.

During questioning on technology companies’ role in foreign policy, the committee heard that Facebook and Twitter “both declined to give evidence to this committee on the basis it put their staff at too great a risk,” Ms Kearns told the committee.

Facebook has faced a stream of criticism from a whistleblower claiming that the company withheld internal information that included how certain platforms harmed teenage girls.

Twitter has also been condemned for not acting swiftly enough to take down accounts from right-wing extremists or those spreading misinformation.

While neither company sent a representative, Google’s Katie O’Donovan appeared before MPs stating that “as a company, we see it is a very important responsibility to come and engage in dialogue like this”.

In a pointed reference at the companies' absence, the public policy manager at Google UK said the reason she had appeared was to “engage with legislators because we realise the responsibility we have”.

Though questions might be “challenging”, it was “absolutely our responsibility to be part of this dialogue,” she said.

“We realise the importance that we play in people's lives. People use Google to run their businesses, to educate their children and to get more out of life. And it's really important from a user point of view that we're seen as helpful.”

Ms O’Donovan, who was a special adviser to former prime minister Tony Blair, also disclosed that the company was working with local law enforcement agencies to “improve understanding of how to request information from us but I think there is definitely more we can do”.

She added that the company actively pursued a policy of “three strikes and you’re out” in terms of YouTube platforms that transgress its rules, as it had done with Russia Today Deutsche for spreading Covid-19 misinformation.

“If you receive a strike for breaking our community guidelines, if you receive three of those, then we will terminate the channel as was done, I believe, in Germany,” she said.

She was thanked by Chris Bryant, MP, for being “more open and transparent” than Facebook and Twitter, which had chosen a “more secretive stance”.

Updated: November 2nd 2021, 6:11 PM