Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam grilled a top Facebook representative for three hours during a parliamentary hearing on Thursday, March 22.
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.
Internet giants Facebook, Google and Twitter are testifying before a special Singapore parliamentary committee on fake news.— Elizabeth Law 思敏 (@lizzlaw_) March 22, 2018
This is the first time FB facing a committee since news of data breach broke last weekend
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.
Committee member and cabinet minister K Shanmugam has been crossing swords with FB VP for Public Policy in APAC Simon Milner for past 30 minutes, mostly to do with data breach, and Milner's previous testimony to British Parliament— Elizabeth Law 思敏 (@lizzlaw_) March 22, 2018
Shamugam accusing Milner of previously being economical with answers.— Elizabeth Law 思敏 (@lizzlaw_) March 22, 2018
Been nearly an hour of exchanges between K Shanmugam and Simon Milner of Facebook, who admitted the company "could have done better"— Elizabeth Law 思敏 (@lizzlaw_) March 22, 2018
Starting to sound a bit like a cross-examination. The law minister is a former litigator.
Shanmugam pressed Milner on details regarding the data breach and its possible interference in the 2016 United States elections.
A Singapore parliamentary hearing focused on combatting fake news, led by the country's law minister, has just grilled the head of Facebook's public policy team, Simon Milner, for more than an hour over the misuse of data by Cambridge Analytica.— Leisha Chi-Santorelli (@BBCLeisha) March 22, 2018
#Singapore law minister K Shanmugam's questioning of Mr Milner, who is responsible for issues around Facebook's privacy, safety and advertising policy, comes hours after Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg publicly apologised for a 'breach of trust' around the @CamAnalytica scandal.— Leisha Chi-Santorelli (@BBCLeisha) March 22, 2018
This Singapore parliamentary hearing with @Facebook, @Twitter and @Google began at 2pm. There was a 15 minutes break in the middle. It is now nearly 5pm. The entire session has been law minister K Shanmugam questioning Facebook's policy boss Simon Milner.— Leisha Chi-Santorelli (@BBCLeisha) March 22, 2018
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.
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.
In case you're still following, still going on. Committee (read: Shanmugam) still on Facebook.— Elizabeth Law 思敏 (@lizzlaw_) March 22, 2018
They've moved on to other aspects, including whether Facebook would take down falsehoods. FB does not have a policy that everything on platform needs to be true
Midway through parliament and many tense exchanges between Singapore law minister K Shanmugam, a former litigator, and Facebook's Simon Milner. The latter has just appealed to committee chairman over being singled out in panel that also includes @Twitter and @Google executives.— Leisha Chi-Santorelli (@BBCLeisha) March 22, 2018
So for what must be the fifth time, Milner of Facebook has asked that questions be directed to other members on the panel including executives of @Twitter and @Google.— Elizabeth Law 思敏 (@lizzlaw_) March 22, 2018
At one point he even appealed to committee chairman Charles Chong
Committee chairman Charles Chong in response to FB APAC policy chief's assertion that some of the qns he's getting is irrelevant:— Elizabeth Law 思敏 (@lizzlaw_) March 22, 2018
"Leave it to us to decide what is relevant and irrelevant. If you do not wish to answer the question or don't know the answer, then you can say so"
Facebook policy boss Simon Milner is being 'interrogated' by Singapore law minister at #fakenews parliamentary hearing. Milner just quipped "I apologise if I was intemperate earlier but I do think it would be good to hear from other people... I think we both need a rest".— Leisha Chi-Santorelli (@BBCLeisha) March 22, 2018
Facebook's policy boss for EMEA, Simon Milner, told the Singapore parliamentary hearing earlier that he received his local employment pass two days ago. I wonder if he'll still be keen to take it up now...!— Leisha Chi-Santorelli (@BBCLeisha) March 22, 2018
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.
"We don't know" Facebook policy boss Simon Milner tells Singapore parliamentary hearing when asked if local users had their data 'improperly obtained' by Aleksandr Kogan and @CamAnalytica.— Leisha Chi-Santorelli (@BBCLeisha) March 22, 2018
Instagram and WhatsApp platforms not affected by data leak and "breach of trust" crisis involving Aleksandr Kogan and Cambridge Analytica: Facebook policy boss Simon Milner in Singapore parliamentary hearing— Leisha Chi-Santorelli (@BBCLeisha) March 22, 2018
Facebook says they are trying to find out extent of data leak and which users are affected. "We have a team of forensic auditors… but we were asked to stand down by the UK regulator. Elizabeth Denham is now conducting her investigation so we are limited from doing the same".— Leisha Chi-Santorelli (@BBCLeisha) March 22, 2018
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: