Facebook withdraws from SA parliament meeting, says former DA MP Phumzile Van Damme

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Facebook has withdrawn its commitment to meet with the Communications and Digital Technologies Committee of the South African Parliament on 25 May, former DA MP Phumzile Van Damme has stated.

Van Damme posted the news on Twitter, hours before her resignation from the Democratic Alliance (DA) and as a Member of Parliament (MP).

“Cowardly. Ill-advised. Ordering a storm unprovoked,” Van Damme said of Facebook’s reneging on its prior commitment to appear before Parliament.

While Facebook has withdrawn from its meeting, Van Damme said Google has confirmed that it will be coming to Parliament in the week of 24 – 28 May 2021.

“So proud of having spearheaded efforts to hold Big Tech accountable,” said Van Damme.

Facebook initially agreed to meet with South Africa’s Parliament over concerns around disinformation before the 2021 local elections.

Van Damme said at the time that the meeting was requested by the Democratic Alliance.

The reason for inviting Facebook was to establish what steps the tech giant would be taking to tackle harmful misinformation, particularly in light of the upcoming elections.

“Facebook often tailors plans for countries ahead of elections to guard against harmful misinformation,” Van Damme said. “We would like to see the same done for South Africa.”

In September 2020, the social media company implemented measures which it said were intended to help secure the integrity of the US elections by encouraging voting, connecting people with authoritative information, and reducing the risks of post-election confusion.

These included updates related to misinformation, COVID-19 and voter suppression, and a ban on new electoral, political, or social issue ads.

Facebook is also in hot water with South Africa’s Information Regulator, which has challenged the tech giant on the implementation of a new privacy policy for WhatsApp.

The Information Regulator contends that the Protection of Personal Information Act of South Africa is similar to the data privacy laws of the European Union, and that WhatsApp should therefore offer South Africans the same privacy protections as it affords users in Europe.

The chairperson of the Information Regulator, Pansy Tlakula, recently called on the South African government to help the regulator in its engagements with Facebook.

We are fighting a giant,” Tlakula told the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee.

“They cannot willy-nilly abuse the personal information of users,” she stated.

Tlakula proposed that the Portfolio Committee on Justice and Correctional Services join forces with the Committee on Communications and Digital Technologies to ask questions of Facebook relating to the WhatsApp privacy policy changes.

With Facebook pulling out of its meeting with the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Communications and Digital Technologies, it is unclear whether the tech giant will give feedback on any of the South African government’s questions.

MyBroadband contacted Facebook and Google for comment regarding Van Damme’s statements but they could not immediately respond to our questions.

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