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Zuckerberg irks EU lawmakers after dodging Facebook questions

Zuckerberg during his testimony before the EU Parliament repeated the same statements he’s been telling recently.

tech Updated: May 23, 2018 16:59 IST
Stephanie Bodoni
Stephanie Bodoni
Bloomberg
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before the EU Parliament.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before the EU Parliament.(AFP)

Facebook Inc. founder Mark Zuckerberg left European Union lawmakers fuming over unanswered questions at the end of a hearing that began with a mea culpa for the company’s recent privacy woes.

At a meeting at the EU Parliament, Zuckerberg repeated what he’s been telling every audience recently: that his company didn’t take a broad enough view of its responsibility for user data, fake news and foreign interference in elections and that he is sorry for that.

But at a session where lawmakers got to ask all their questions in one go at the start, he annoyed them by batting many of them away -- including on whether people can opt out of advertising and also on whether the US giant is a monopoly that needs to be broken up.

“Unfortunately the format was a get out of jail free card and gave Mr. Zuckerberg too much room to avoid the difficult questions,” said Syed Kamall, a British center-right lawmaker, who attended the meeting in Brussels.

The revelations that the data of as many as 87 million Facebook users and their friends may have been misused by Cambridge Analytica has been called a game changer in the world of data protection as regulators seek to raise awareness about how to secure information.

Split up?

While most questions focused on how Facebook cares for users’ data, Manfred Weber, the leader of the center-right EPP group, and Guy Verhofstadt, a Liberal former Belgian Prime Minister, raised a potentially chilling point for Zuckerberg -- should it be split up?

“Is it time to break Facebook’s monopoly because there’s already too much power in one company’s hands?” Weber asked. “Can you convince me not to?”

Zuckerberg didn’t rise to the bait, but instead pointed out that the company faces stiff competition.

“We exist in a very competitive space,” he said. “The average person uses about eight different tools for communication -- it feels like there are new competitors coming up every day.”

Verhofstadt said Zuckerberg now faces a volley of follow-up written questions from members left feeling short-changed.

“He hasn’t responded to the questions and to do that there will be a list of written questions -- in fact all the questions that have been put forward to him today,” he said. “I think that was the only way because with a written procedure, he cannot escape.”

‘Not mandatory’

European Parliament President Antonio Tajani defended the Facebook chief’s responses.

“He’s not obliged to come. He responded to our offer of a meeting,” he said. “It lasted more than an hour and a half. There were a large number of questions and he responded to many of them. Everyone knew he had to leave in a hurry. This wasn’t a mandatory hearing.”

Just over a month after giving an apology for his company’s recent mistakes during two grueling days of U.S. congressional hearings, Zuckerberg had rather less time to respond to members of the EU lawmakers who demanded answers -- and contrition -- after 2.7 million European Facebook users were compromised by political data firm Cambridge Analytica.

The 34-year-old CEO spent about 10 hours testifying in front of the U.S. Congress in April. Sticking close to his prepared remarks, Zuckerberg began his testimony with an apology similar to the one he offered U.S. lawmakers last month.

Fake news

“It’s also become clear over the last couple of years that we haven’t done enough to prevent the tools we’ve built from being used for harm as well,” he said in comments streamed over the internet from the EU assembly. “Whether it’s fake news, foreign interference in elections or developers misusing people’s information, we didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibilities. That was a mistake, and I’m sorry.”

While the European Parliament’s powers are limited to scrutinizing draft legislation, its members, along with the European Commission, the EU’s executive agency, have used the recent scandal as a reminder of why tough new EU privacy rules kicking in at the end of next week are justified.

Understanding the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica Story: QuickTake

Tuesday’s events had been scheduled to take part behind closed doors. But that plan was torn up following fierce criticism by EU officials such as EU Justice Commissioner Vera Jourova, who is in charge of overseeing the new legislation, which gives regulators the power to levy massive fines for violating tougher privacy principles.

Asked whether Facebook is ready for the new rules, Zuckerberg responded that it would be from day one.