At some point when I was living in Nigeria they had one of their frequent “petrol crises” where for some reason there is a shortage of petrol in the filling stations. These are usually caused by strikes, sabotage, or plain old incompetence (see the third item in this post, for example). This particular crisis got bad enough that the government started getting concerned and commissioned some functionary to look into it. Rather than tackling the root causes, which would have been absolutely impossible, the functionaries started hauling in the foreign directors of western oil companies and subjecting them to lengthy harangues which were televised. I caught a few minutes of a European I knew being asked the most stupid of questions by a Nigerian lawmaker who looked about fifteen years old. It was an exercise in grandstanding on the part of the Nigerians and humiliation on the part of the directors. Of course, it didn’t help the petrol crisis one whit, but it was good politics. Many Africans like seeing one of their own ritually humiliate a white man, even if they’ll be substantially poorer the next day as a result. See Zimbabwe, or where South Africa is heading, for example.
I was reminded of this exercise in political posturing a few years later when the Labour MP Margaret Hodge headed up the kangaroo court known as the Public Accounts Committee. This awful woman would drag hapless executives before her and denounce the tax avoidance measures their companies had employed, even though they had broken no laws and were in most cases acting well within the spirit of the law. Her ignorance of the subject she was presiding over was on full display, and she was also a staggering hypocrite: the family firm Stemcor, from which she draws her fortune, uses much the same tax avoidance measures as those she was denouncing. The whole thing was a circus designed to whip up anger from the left against “big business” while covering up the many failings of British politicians, primarily getting spending under control. I was not only disappointed that Britain should have fallen so far as to adopt the practice of political bullying I saw in Nigeria, but also that none of the executives had the balls to stand up, denounce the whole thing as a show-trial, and call out Hodge on her hypocrisy.
This is why I was happy to read this story a couple of days ago:
Mark Zuckerberg has come under intense criticism from the UK parliamentary committee investigating fake news after the head of Facebook refused an invitation to testify in front of MPs for a third time.
Was he obliged by law to do so? No, he wasn’t.
Zuckerberg has been invited three times to speak to the committee, which is investigating the effects of fake news on UK democracy, but has always sent deputies to testify in his stead.
Which is sensible. If Facebook must answer specific technical questions to a committee of MPs, it may well be that the CEO is not the best person to attend. Note what’s being complained about here: it’s not that Facebook ignored the invitation, just that Zuckerberg didn’t come in person. In other words, this gaggle of MPs from a country which can’t even secure its borders (unless a “far right” Canadian shows up at Stansted) and prosecutes people for internet jokes thought they were so important that one of the world’s most prominent billionaires and an American citizen should drop everything and come to participate in what is likely to be a kangaroo court.
The chair, Damian Collins, said it had become more urgent the Facebook founder give evidence in person after oral evidence provided by the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower, Christopher Wylie.
The MP said: “I think, given the extraordinary evidence we’ve heard so far today, it is absolutely astonishing that Mark Zuckerberg is not prepared to submit himself to questioning in front of a parliamentary or congressional hearing, given these are questions of fundamental importance and concern to his users, as well as to this inquiry.
Who the hell is Damian Collins? Has anyone ever heard of him? The most noteworthy thing on his Wikipedia article is this:
It was revealed Collins claimed £4,440.90 over three months in rent for a house in London, despite declaring that he already owned a home in the capital. In his defence, he claimed the property belonged to his wife and was “too small to provide accommodation for my young family, and even if that was not the case, as a new Member of Parliament I wouldn’t be able to claim any accommodation allowance against the mortgage on the property.”
So this small-time grifter who was elected by 32k people in the constituency of Folkestone and Hythe is astonished that Mark Zuckerberg, who presides over a multi-billion dollar international business enterprise providing a service with literally billions of users, won’t come in person to answer his questions? Do British MPs start out with this over-inflated idea of their own importance, or does it build up over time?
“I would certainly urge him to think again if he has any care for people that use his company’s services.”
So if an American CEO of a giant corporation doesn’t come and grovel before a parliamentary select committee, and instead sends (possibly more suitable) deputies, some obscure backbencher will issue veiled threats in a national paper? Let me tell you something, Mr Collins: given the choice of keeping Facebook or keeping you, 100% of British people would keep Facebook. Nobody would give one solitary fuck if you were cleaning the insides of wheelie-bins by this time tomorrow.
MPs are likely to take a still dimmer view of his decision after he ultimately agreed to testify before Congress in the US.
Note to British MPs sitting on a select committee: you are not the US Congress. I wonder, do other countries get to do this? Can an MP from rural Uzbekistan demand the CEO of Glaxosmithkline attend a grilling over public concern surrounding Sensodyne toothpaste? Probably not, no. So why do British MPs think they can order foreign CEOs to appear before them?
The company’s head of public policy, Rebecca Stimson, said in a letter to Collins: “Facebook fully recognises the level of public and parliamentary interest in these issues and support your belief that these issues must be addressed at the most senior levels of the company by those in an authoritative position to answer your questions. As such, Mr Zuckerberg has personally asked one of his deputies to make themselves available.”
Both men, Stimson wrote, “report directly to Mr Zuckerberg and are among the longest-serving senior representatives in Facebook’s 15-year history. Both of them have extensive expertise in these issues and are well placed to answer the committee’s questions on these complex subjects.”
Exactly. Collins and his mob have absolutely no right either legal or moral to demand the appearance of Zuckerberg in person. This is pure vanity on his part, driven by delusional levels of self-importance. He should resign immediately, not just for making highly inappropriate comments which make Britain look like a banana republic, but for making me defend Mark Zuckerberg.