After being grilled by the US Congress over questions about his company handing over the private data of its users to third parties, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on May 22 found himself in a setting that was a significant departure from the media circus that greeted him in April when he was asked questions about the Cambridge Analytica data mining scandal that saw the UK-registered consulting firm use, for political purposes, personal information acquired about Facebook.
European Parliament members left, however, dismayed and without answers after a 90-minute, closed-door Q&A session with the youthful, ginger-haired CEO. Zuckerberg appeared to Facebook take advantage of the European Parliament President Antonio Tajani’s desire to keep the meeting as short as possible.
According to Tajani. himself, the format of the meeting was his idea, but that he had the backing of the heads of the European Parliament’s political groups. To justify the shortness of the hearing, Tajani insisted that the truncated schedule for the hearing was set by Zuckerberg, as he “is not obliged to come because he isn’t a European citizen”. Zuckerberg had said he would only agree to meet with European officials if he were only required to answer written questions, Tajani said, who commended Zuckerberg for demonstrating a level of respect for the EU and its institutions by travelling to Brussels to speak with them personally.
In his opening remarks, Tajani said major digital companies “Need to respect the rules for harvesting and using our data. In a few days, GDPR will enter in to force,” said Tajani as he referenced Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation. “Today’s meeting is just a starting point as we move towards a new form of governance for digital platforms.”
Zuckerberg spent around 30 minutes giving answers to a 60-minute block of questions, often using the same list of talking points that he first riled off while speaking to the Congress members last month. His opening remarks were nearly identical to those given when he addressed US lawmakers several weeks ago.
“In 2016 we were too slow to identify Russian interference in the US presidential election. We weren’t prepared enough for the kind of coordinated misinformation operations we are now aware of.”
Zuckerberg apologised for Facebook’s platform being used to spread fake news and misinformation during recent elections, explaining that his company’s new algorithms are now taking down fake profiles faster than before.
“Facebook hasn’t done enough to prevent those tools from being misused, that was a mistake, and I’m sorry for it,” Zuckerberg said, while also emphasising that he has, “double the number of people working on the company’s security” even though it will significantly impact the company’s profitability, “but keeping people safe will always be more important than our profits.”
European Parliamentarian Manfred Weber, the leader of the European People’s Party centre-right group, the largest in the European Parliament, said it was time to discuss breaking up Facebook’s monopoly, and chastised Zuckerberg for what called deemed a personal decision by Zuckerberg to not notify users who were subjected to security breaches. “Is Cambridge Analytica an isolated case? Can you guarantee that another scandal will not happen in three, six, or nine months’ time?” Weber asked.
A visibly uncomfortable Zuckerberg responded to Weber’s questions by saying that Facebook has had a policy in place since 2014 that prevented any app developer from misusing its data while urging MEPs not to consider breaking up Facebook as it accounts for 6% of the global advertising market share and that an estimated 70 million small businesses use the social media platform for advertising.
The European Parliament has no power to break up, but it can pressure the European Commission’s antitrust watchdog to scrutinise the company more closely.
When asked if Facebook is ready to comply with General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) that will come into effect on May 25, which boosts people’s rights online by ensuring that companies obtain consent before using data rather than taking non-response as implied assent, Zuckerberg responded curtly, saying he expects the company to be compliant by the time the law becomes official.
“We’ve always shared these values and given people the ability to control what information they share and who they share it with. Now we’re going even further to comply with these strong new rules,” said Zuckerberg before adding, “Security is not a problem that you can ever fully solve,” he told MEPs.
Due to the questioning format, which allowed Zuckerberg to make broad statements rather than address specific issue, he demurred when as about various reports that Facebook had moved the data of 1.5 billion users out of reach of the new data protection regulation.
When the questioning turned to the upcoming 2019 European parliamentary election, Germany’s Udo Bullmann from the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats party, pointedly asked Zuckerberg whether he could guarantee that no manipulation by a third party would take place through his platform, to which Zuckerberg responded by saying, “We face sophisticated, well-funded adversaries who are constantly evolving. But we’re committed to continuing to invest heavily and improve our technique to make sure we stay ahead.”
In a fiery exchange with Belgium’s centrist former prime minister and now head of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Guy Verhofstadt, who castigated Zuckerberg for letting Facebook’s policies and the way it is used get out of his control.
“The fact is that maybe you have less control or no control about your own company for the moment,” he continued, “because you have to apologize now. I think in total, you apologized now 15 or 16 times in the last decade. In 2003 you started. Every year you have one or other wrongdoing or problem with Facebook and you have to face the reality and to say sorry and to say that you are going to fix it. Last year, I think it was twice that you apologized. This year, it’s three times already and we’re still in the month of May, so it’s a little bit early in the year.”
Verhofstadt questioned Zuckerberg’s ability to fix the persistent problems that have plagued Facebook over the years and if Zuckerberg was personally capable and committed to resolving the company’s shortcomings.
“There is clearly a problem. The only way in my opinion to do it—and I’m a liberal, a free marketeer—is to have public regulation to do so. It’s a little bit like with the banks in 2006, 2007, 2008. They said, ‘We’re going to do self-regulation. Don’t bother. We’re going to do it ourselves.’ The reality is that they didn’t do it themselves. And it was needed to have tough regulation,” said Verhofstadt, before taking aim at Zuckerberg’s commitment to implementing the new data protection rules and Facebook’s transfer of user files out of the EU and into the United States.
“You have told us that you are gonna apply [the GDPR rules], but are you telling the truth in fact to us?” he asked. “Are you telling the truth because, since the outbreak of Cambridge Analytica, you have massively transferred European data of non-European citizens out from Europe … I have to tell you that is against the regulation, against the GDPR, and against an existing directive in Europe…which is still applicable.”
Verhofstadt also .raised the possibility that under article 82 of the GDPR, Facebook would, under certain conditions, have to compensate European Facebook users if their personal data had been illegally mined.
Touching on the topic of fake news and whether Facebook had any concrete plans to halt the spread of disinformation, the head of European United Left–Nordic Green Left, Gabi Zimmer, blamed Facebook for helping to spread fake news and disinformation and said Zuckerberg must do more to counter sexism online, while asking what the social media platform plans to do to reduce information about the spread of violence against women.
Zimmer also joined the chorus of MEPs, which included Verhofstadt, in criticising the format of the hearing which took place behind closed doors and was only streamed via the internet saying, “I wonder why it wasn’t possible to have an open, public meeting in the first place. After all, you speak about transparency and bringing people together for debate as the basic idea of Facebook,” she told Zuckerberg as he uncomfortably looked on.
In a bizarre line of questioning that was utterly unhinged from the topics of disinformation and data mining Former Ukip leader and Brexit champion Nigel Farage spent his allotted time parroting Tea Party ideologue, US Republican Senator Ted Cruz, accusing Facebook of having “a liberal bias” after it implemented a series of algorithms which he claims target political parties with right-wing views.
In his carefully calculated responses to the MEPs questions, Zuckerberg appeared to initially focus on the issue of “inappropriate content” on the platform, saying that content containing hate speech, references to acts of terrorism, and bullying is now taken down by algorithms even before it gets flagged, but admitted that there is no solution to fully eradicate the problem, saying,”We will never be perfect in this.”
Zuckerberg also suggested that only a few accounts are actually fake, around 1%, according to his estimates and brushed aside any suggestions that Facebook was a monopoly, saying his company does what it takes to stay competitive by providing thousands of jobs to people in the EU.
He was also equally cautious in his response to the idea of regulation, saying the question needed to focus on “whether there should be regulation, but what kind of regulation there should be.”
As the allotted time ran out on the hearing, most of the MEPs complained that Zuckerberg had intentionally been vague in responses and demanded direct answers. The meeting ended acrimoniously as Verhofstadt and Philippe Lamberts from the Greens–European Free Alliance slammed the“precooked format” as “inappropriate” and said it gave Zuckerberg the chance to avoid important questions.
“Unfortunately the format of questioning allowed Mr Zuckerberg to cherry-pick his responses and not respond to each individual point,” said Damian Collins, chair of the UK Parliament’s Digital Culture Media and Sport Committee, told BBC.
Despite the demonstrative gesture of travelling to Brussels to face a panel of clearly hostile MEPs, Zuckerberg appears to have walked out the meeting without having actually answered for any of the more issues that prompted his visit to the European Union capital in the first place.
The EU lawmakers who were obviously angered and frustrated by Zuckerberg’s broad answers will most likely leave this round of questioning believing that Facebook needs to remain under close examination for the time being.