Under-fire Facebook SA denies snubbing Parliament’s invitation

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Facebook South Africa has denied allegations that it has refused to appear before the South African Parliament’s Committee of Communications and Digital Technologies to respond to questions about misinformation on its platforms.

Facebook owns Instagram and the WhatsApp messaging app, which is used by 58% of South African mobile phone owners.

In February, the social media giant was summoned to appear before Parliament, after former Democratic Alliance MP and spokesperson on communications Phumzile van Damme detailed plans to request Facebook to be invited to account on several matters. These included the protection of the digital privacy of its South African users and its role in combating misinformation on local elections and COVID-19.

Over the weekend, media reports surfaced that Facebook had withdrawn its commitment to meet with the communications committee, after Van Damme stated in a tweet that: “Facebook has decided to go back on its commitment to appear before our committee. Cowardly. Ill-advised. Ordering a storm unprovoked.”

Google was also among the companies invited to attend the round table scheduled for this week.

Kojo Boakye, Facebook public policy director for Africa, told ITWeb that the company is still committed to appearing before Parliament; however, it had requested a postponement of the scheduled date, in order for other tech companies to confirm their attendance.

“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,” says Boakye.

“The roundtable with the Parliamentary committee was meant to do just that. Earlier last week, representatives of the committee informed us that, at that time, Facebook was the only company that had confirmed its participation in this week’s roundtable. 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.”

Facebook, which has 2.8 billion users worldwide, is under fire from a number of governments around the world, with critics saying it is undermining user privacy and is not doing enough to combat the spread of misinformation and fake news on its platforms.

In SA, social media platforms WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter have been blamed for the alarming increase of COVID-19 vaccine-related conspiracy theories and claims linking the spread of COVID-19 to 5G technology.

In a statement released in February, Van Damme was quoted as saying: “We want stronger content moderation that protects those that could be subjected to hate speech, as well as curb the spread of misinformation, which in some instances could have deadly consequences. We trust that Facebook, in good faith, will accept the offer to appear before the committee in order to build a relationship with Parliament and clarify concerns.”

The Information Regulator (IR) also supported the communications committee’s invitation for Facebook to appear before Parliament, after the privacy watchdog raised concerns that the updated WhatsApp privacy may not be in line with the Protection of Personal Information Act (POPIA).

The IR says it is consulting attorneys to assess why WhatsApp provides its local services under different terms of service and privacy policy than in the European Union (EU) – due to the region’s stringent data protection law, the General Data Protection Regulation.

“We are very concerned about these different standards that apply to us; our legislation is very similar to that of the EU,” says advocate Pansy Tlakula, chairperson of the IR.

“We are obligated as the regulator to ensure the protection of personal information of all South African citizens and monitor compliance of the POPIA by responsible parties. We therefore will take this matter further and seek legal opinions and advocate for collaborated efforts.”

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