Minister Shanmugam grills Facebook representative for 3 hours at parliamentary hearing

Google and Twitter reps were also on the panel but got away with light questioning.

Belmont Lay | March 22, 2018, 10:45 PM

Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam grilled a top Facebook representative for three hours during a parliamentary hearing on Thursday, March 22.

Special committee

The Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods – Causes, Consequences and Countermeasures started the public hearing at 2pm.

Facebook, Google, and Twitter representatives were asked to testify before a special committee made up of 10 Members of Parliament (MPs).

The task of the committee was to consider perspectives presented by experts and stakeholders to formulate a plan to fight non-truthful news online.

Facebook rep targeted

From the get-go, Shanmugam repeatedly directed pointed questions at Simon Milner, Facebook’s vice-president of public policy for Asia-Pacific.

This was after media reports in the past week revealed that the personal data of 50 million Facebook users were obtained by Cambridge Analytical, a data analysis and marketing company.

Before the hearing, the representatives from the three global tech giants had already expressed concern about the Singapore government’s potential plan to introduce a new law to target online falsehoods.

Alvin Tan, Facebook’s head of public policy for Southeast Asia, expressed the belief that legislation is not the best approach.

Kathleen Reen, Twitter’s director of Public Policy for Asia Pacific said “no single company, governmental or non-governmental actor, should be the arbiter of truth”.


Live Twitter updates of the hearing were provided by Elizabeth Law from AFP and Leisha Santorelli from BBC.

From their accounts, which can verified by videos released by the Singapore government of the hearing, Milner was questioned for three hours with the focus on the massive user data breach and its exploitation by Cambridge Analytica.

Shanmugam pressed Milner on details regarding the data breach and its possible interference in the 2016 United States elections.

During the exchange, which got heated at some points, Milner insisted that he was being open in his answers to Shanmugam and the committee.

Milner also questioned the minister on the relevance of the questions concerning developments outside of Singapore.

Shanmugam responded firmly that the questions on exchanges between Facebook and other jurisdictions were very relevant to Singapore in establishing the degree of trust the government could place in Facebook.


Light-hearted moments

There were a few light-hearted moments between the tense exchanges.

When Shanmugam made a passing remark of Milner accusing him of "being a lawyer just now", Milner replied that "it wasn't an accusation".

Milner said: "It's a fact. You still are. I respect that. Fantastic. I wish I've done it myself".

"Well, you do better than most lawyers do", Shanmugam quipped.

Another moment came during the exchange on whether legislation on deliberate online falsehood was needed.

“Legislation which is enacted in haste can often be regretted. We just need to be really careful about how this gets (to become law),” said Milner.

After the first two hours of questioning by Shanmugam before the hearing was adjourned for a coffee break, Milner said: “I am sure given the carefulness with which you have interrogated me today, you will be.”

Shanmugam quipped in response: “That sounds more like a threat”.

It prompted laughter among the attendees at the hearing.

Milner replied: “It’s a genuine and respectful praise.”

Continued to be quizzed

Shanmugam continued to return to Milner after the break.

At one point, a seemingly exasperated Milner, fresh from his break, voiced out that the minister question someone else. He even appealed to committee chairman Charles Chong, who shot Milner’s request down.

The highlight of the hearing was when Milner said he is unsure if any Facebook users in Singapore had their personal information leaked to Cambridge Analytica.

Milner also acknowledged the “big problem” of online falsehoods and its potential impact on national security and the fabric of Singapore’s multi-racial and multi-religious society.

He said Facebook wants to work closely with the authorities to tackle the issue.

In response, Shanmugam said: “We do want you to have your business running and doing well. To make it workable, we will need to discuss with you, sit with you, and see how it works.”

Here are the other two videos of the hearing featuring Milner: