Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg had two priorities heading into a hearing at the European Parliament on Tuesday.
First, he had to avoid a serious gaffe that could be replayed again and again as a soundbite on the evening news. Second, he had to convince lawmakers that Facebook is doing enough to counter fake news, foreign interventions into elections and hate speech to prevent the need for further regulation.
For task one: tick. The format was such that it was easy for Zuckerberg to bat away any challenging questions. Lawmakers spent almost an hour interrogating him, after which Zuckerberg spent just 25 minutes answering them. From a journalistic perspective, a major mea culpa makes for a more compelling story. That didn’t happen, nor was it likely to.
As for task two? Almost certainly not. Zuckerberg offered answers that were in many ways facsimiles of those he offered Congress a little more than a month ago, even though many of the questions on Tuesday were significantly different. While the Senate, in particular, drew criticism for a lack of knowledge, members of the European Parliament posed pointed questions about shadow profiles, the sharing of data among Facebook’s different apps, opting out of tracking across the web and many more. Most went unanswered.
Guy Verhofstadt, Belgium’s ex-prime minister, took Zuckerberg to task after he finished providing his answers. «I asked you six yes or no questions,» he said. «I got not a single answer.» The Facebook co-founder blushed visibly.
When confronted with questions about data, he responded with answers about content. MEPs noticed the difference.
At one point, Zuckerberg tried to end the proceedings himself. The German Green MEP Jan Philipp Albrecht, one of the architects of the General Data Protection Regulation, which dictates how personal information is handled in the European Union, prevented him from doing so.
On the surface, the hearing may have seemed an easy affair for Zuckerberg. He appeared to turn away the most challenging questions almost casually. But when it came to what must have been his primary intention with the hearing, namely convincing lawmakers that Facebook doesn’t need even stricter regulation, he fell short. That isn’t necessarily a catastrophe for the Silicon Valley firm. European lawmaking can be painfully slow. But MEPs more than likely left feeling shortchanged, and that’s a risk for Zuckerberg and his company.
So far, only British lawmakers have succeeded in pinning Facebook down on substantive issues, when Mike Schroepfer, the company’s chief technology officer, visited last month. The format, with 12 lawmakers with specialist knowledge afforded five hours to pose questions, was far more informative. Even then, he admitted there were some responses only Zuckerberg could provide. If it’s true that Facebook doesn’t require further regulation, the CEO should accept the British Parliament select committee’s invitation and seize the opportunity to prove it.
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