Jakarta: Facebook executives have endured a hostile grilling from Indonesian MPs, as the company faced threats of an audit or a shut down over the Cambridge Analytica data breach.
For hours on Tuesday, senior executives from the social media giant were also hit with questions about the company’s role in spreading hate speech, its impact on democracy in Indonesia, and the viability of its business model
Facebook executives delivered a grovelling apology to the nearly 1.1 million Indonesians caught up in the breach, while attempting to shift the blame for the breach onto Aleksandr Kogan, the man who invented the “This is your Digital Life” app.
Once downloaded by a Facebook user, the app accessed the information of users’ friends and – according to Facebook – he later passed the information on to Cambridge Analytica, without the permission of the social network.
In a lengthy appearance before an Indonesian parliamentary committee – the latest example of a national government carpeting Facebook – the company was quizzed about the breach.
Facebook Indonesia Public Policy chief Ruben Hattari attempted to reassure MPs and users about the security of the platform and tried to draw a line under the scandal.
“It was however a breach of trust and failure on our part to adequately protect people’s data, and we are sorry that this happened,” he said.
But Hattari’s opening statement was heavy on spin and assertions about how the company wants to “build community” and “bring the world closer together” and contained little new of substance.
Attempts by Hattari and his Vice President of Public Police for Asia Pacific Simon Milner to shift blame onto Kogan drew an angry response from across the political spectrum.
PDI-P MP Evita Nursanty, a member of the government, demanded to know if Facebook could guarantee user data had not been misused and added “if you can’t we will recommend to carry out audit investigation”.
“This year we will have local elections and next year presidential election, how can you ensure the data won’t be used by third parties?”
Gerindra MP Elnino Husein Mohi, a member of the opposition, said “we should shut Facebook down temporarily”.
Golkar MP Satya Widya Yudha, another government MP, demanded to know how Kogan was not in jail and “if he is the root cause of the problem…what has Facebook done?”
Earlier, Hattari said the exact number of people affected may be significantly lower than the 1.1 million estimate because Kogan has said he only shared data about US users with Cambrdige Analytica.
Between November 2013 and December 2015, when the app was shut down, Hattari said 748 Indonesians had downloaded the app.
But because of the way the app worked as many as 1,096,666 had potentially been affected, he said.
Milner stressed to the assembled MPs that Facebook and Cambridge Analytica had never had a relationship and that Kogan was responsible for the data breach.
But committee deputy chair Hanafi Rais shot back that Milner should stop simply blaming Kogan.
Facebook’s reputation and share price has taken a battering over the alleged improper use of Facebook user data by Cambridge Analytica to influence elections.
An estimated 115 million people use Facebook every month in Indonesia, a country of about 260 million people.
Of the estimated 87 million people hit worldwide, about 70 million were from the United States. 311,127 people in Australia may have been affected.
Indonesian Communications Minister Rudiantara warned two weeks ago that he was prepared to shut down Facebook.
The hearing was due to continue on Tuesday evening, Australian time, with the company due to respond to the MPs’ questions.
Despite the tough talk and threats, experts such as the Australian National University’s Ross Tapsell have suggested it is highly unlikely the platform would be shut down in Indonesia.
When Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg visited Jakarta, for example, he met President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, who is a prolific social media user himself and the pair were mobbed by crowds. Depriving the huge number of Indonesians who use the platform would be very unpopular, and risk significant blow back in an election year.