Facebook grilled by Singapore lawmakers on Cambridge Analytica during tense parliamentary session

Singapore’s Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods convened on Thursday to hear representatives from Google, Facebook and Twitter give oral evidence during one of the parliamentary sessions on how they are combating fake news.

The tech giants, together with industry association Asia Internet Coalition, in their written representation to the committee before the session, had stated that they firmly do not believe that legislation by governments will help stop the spread of fake news.

Instead, according to Channel NewsAsia, they called for a stringent self-regulatory approach, executed in coordination and cooperation with the authorities to fight the bad actors who intend to spread misinformation.

Google was represented at the session by Irene Jay Liu, news lab lead in Asia Pacific, Facebook by Alvin Tan, head of public policy for Southeast Asia and Simon Milner, vice president of public policy for APAC, Twitter by Kathleen Mary Helen Reen, director of public policy and philanthropy for APAC, AIC by Jeff Paine, managing director.

While the topic was fake news, committee member K Shanmugam, who is also Singapore’s Law and Home Affairs minister, spent the first few hours of the session grilling Milner in a somewhat heated exchange on how Cambridge Analytica harvested users' data on Facebook.

Shanmugam first debated with Milner on the word ‘harvest’, before accusing the Facebook exec of being "very careful and economical with the truth" in his answers to a similar committee when questioned about the same subject in the United Kingdom parliament on 8 February.

“You do not inform the users (then), which is very odd, and inexplicable and one would say, inexcusable. You do not tell the public about it. And it’s contrary to everything you have stated about the importance of protecting data, and protecting users’ data,” said Shanmugam.

“We then fast forward through last year, nothing. This year, UK parliament, questions were asked. From my perspective, those questions were capable of being answered only in one way, which is to come out with the truth. And that didn’t happen.”

Defending himself, Milner explained that 'in hindsight' he could have given a fuller answer but could not do so given the context of the hearing at that point of time. “I felt that at the time I was giving truthful answers to questions. Now in hindsight, especially given recent events, I wish I had said more but at that time, it is really only the events of the last few days and the things that have come to light.”

Milner then went on the offensive by asking Shanmugam why he was concerning himself with developments that happened in another continent, which drew a sharp rebuke from the minister.

“Facebook can be trusted to answer questions when asked, Facebook can be trusted to be a reliable partner, that the government of Singapore can depend on Facebook to tell us the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth,” said Shanmugam.

“If you thought that you could turn up here today, not answer questions on CA, and explain (away) your answers today with your answers five weeks ago to a different parliament. We are all sovereign parliaments but we look at your conduct all over the world.”

The Drum reached out to the tech giants after the session for additional statements.

A spokesperson for Google directed The Drum to the comments during the session, while Twitter failed to respond by press time.

Meanwhile, Facebook's Tan did not respond to questions about the exchange between Shanmugam and Milner.

Instead, Tan said: "We are committed to fighting the spread of false news and misinformation on multiple fronts, employing a variety of tools and tactics. They include disrupting financial incentives, taking action against fake accounts, applying machine learning to help diminish spam, and reducing the posts people see that link to low-quality web pages."

"We are also working to educate our community on how to spot false news, and providing people with more information. We will continue to work with key stakeholders in Singapore, including the government, to help combat the spread of false news," he added.

Facebook founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg has also apologised for the data breach and has pledged to ensure this does not happen again.