4 things we learned from Zuckerberg’s tense face-to-face with the EU

23 May 2018

Mark Zuckerberg greets European Parliament president Antonio Tajani. Image: Alexandros Michailidis/Shutterstock

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s whistle-stop tour of legislators saw him answer questions from the EU, but what did we actually learn?

It has only been a few months since the breaking of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, but in that time Facebook continues to find itself the centre of attention when it comes to accusations of not doing enough to protect its users’ data from nefarious online tactics.

These accusations have ranged from the spread of fake news to direct influencing of national elections.

As the founder and head of the largest social network in the world, Mark Zuckerberg has once again become the target for investigations and inquiries, notably from his compatriots during a two-day joint hearing of the US Senate judiciary and commerce committees last April.

Yesterday (22 May), Zuckerberg was tasked with facing an uncomfortable grilling from across the Atlantic Ocean in a European Union that is counting down the few remaining days until GDPR becomes enforceable.

So, after his much-anticipated appearance in front of EU MEPs, what new information did we actually learn from Zuckerberg, and were the MEPs satisfied with his answers?

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before EU Parliament

Facebook CEO Zuckerberg is testifying before European Parliament, and he is expected to face questions about privacy and the Cambridge Analytica data scandal.

Posted by CNNMoney on Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Q&A format left much to be desired

Unlike the format agreed upon in the US Senate in April where Zuckerberg was asked a question, gave his answer and then moved on to the next question, the EU format saw the Facebook founder having to listen to 22 minutes of solid questioning from MEPs.

What this gave rise to was Zuckerberg being able to effectively pick and choose which questions he wanted to give answers to.

This left MEPs visibly frustrated, with one going so far as to claim that Zuckerberg asked for this exact format – this was later strongly denied by both Facebook and the European Parliament’s president, Antonio Tajani.

What actually transpired beforehand was that Facebook had made the EU aware of how much time Zuckerberg had, as is the case with any EU Parliament meetings. After running 15 minutes over the 75 minutes scheduled for the meeting, Zuckerberg tried to call an end to it.

Avoiding the big questions

Among the most pertinent of questions avoided was whether Facebook having nearly a third of the planet using its social network meant it was a monopoly, and what exactly it intends to do with the user data of more than 1.5bn monthly active users of WhatsApp.

Furthermore, as the BBC pointed out, he never addressed some pretty obvious but important questions, such as whether the data of people who don’t even use Facebook should be collected by the social network.

Angering some MEPs, one member called out Zuckerberg’s avoidance of questioning by saying: “Will you allow users to escape targeted advertising? I asked you six yes-or-no questions and got not a single answer.”

But perhaps the unanswered question that stood out the most to anyone watching the meeting yesterday evening was posed by MEP Guy Verhofstadt, who asked Zuckerberg whether he’d be OK with being remembered as “the genius who created a digital monster”.

What he did say was very familiar

By being able to cherrypick his answers, Zuckerberg was able to hit all his previous talking points from the US Senate hearing, suggesting that “some sort of regulation is important and inevitable, and the important thing is to get it right”.

He said that any regulations would need to “allow for innovation, don’t inadvertently prevent new technologies like artificial intelligence from being able to be developed and of course to make sure that new start-ups – the next student sitting in a college dorm room like I was – doesn’t have an undue burden in being able to build the next great product”.

Regarding the issue of malicious third-party apps, Zuckerberg said that he and his employees expect to find other data-harvesting apps similar to the one used by Cambridge Analytica, but that an internal investigation into thousands of apps could take many months.

He did confirm that a total of 200 apps had been suspended, however.

As expected, Zuckerberg apologised to the MEPs for these tools being available in the first place. But the tough, technical questions will apparently have to wait, Zuckerberg said, as he and his team draft some written responses to those unanswered questions.

Zuckerberg fails to make friends in Europe

Given that Zuckerberg was asked to the meeting in the first place by the EU, there is no denying that many member states are less than enamoured with how Facebook operates, especially within their own borders.

This is especially true after Facebook recently decided to transfer the data of approximately 1.5bn users from its European headquarters here in Ireland over to the US, with speculation that it was a legal tactic to avoid any prosecution under GDPR.

There is also the fact that the social network fought hard against many EU privacy rules through lobby groups, and continues to rile many nations financially over where it actually pays its taxes.

Green MEP and GDPR rapporteur Jan Philipp Albrecht told TechCrunch after the meeting: “It was a disappointing appearance by Zuckerberg.

“By not answering the very detailed questions by the MEPs, he didn’t use the chance to restore trust of European consumers but, in contrary, showed to the political leaders in the European Parliament that stronger regulation and oversight is needed.”

Mark Zuckerberg greets European Parliament president Antonio Tajani. Image: Alexandros Michailidis/Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic