The European Union vs. Facebook

May 26, 2018 07:32 pm | Updated May 27, 2018 01:47 pm IST

A demonstration in front of the European Union headquarters in Brussels, earlier this month.

A demonstration in front of the European Union headquarters in Brussels, earlier this month.

After facing the U.S. Congress and the Senate in April, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg appeared before the European Parliament in Brussels last week.

Though many of the MPs were well-prepared to quiz Mr. Zuckerberg, the whole process appeared to be farcical. In the U.S., lawmakers took two days to ask Mr. Zuckerberg critical questions about his company’s data policies. In contrast, the hearing in Brussels was scheduled for 90 minutes.

The question format was problematic, too. First, the MPs asked all their questions, which itself took 62 minutes. Mr. Zuckerberg then summarised his answers in 23 minutes, leaving many questions unanswered.

The hearing in Brussels was scheduled for 90 minutes. First, the MPs asked all their questions, taking 62 minutes, and then Zuckerberg summarised his answers in 23 minutes

Nevertheless, many European politicians appeared to be more critical than their American counterparts on Facebook’s handling of data. Guy Verhofstadt, a member of Belgium’s Flemish Liberals and Democrats, asked Mr. Zuckerberg about his company keeping shadow profiles of the persons who are not on Facebook. Mr. Verhofstadt added that Facebook has to face regulation from outside.

“I really think we have a big problem here, and it’s not going to be solved by saying ‘We are gonna fix it by ourselves’. You have to ask yourself how you will be remembered, as one of the three big Internet giants together with Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, who have enriched our world and our societies, or on the other hand, [...] as the genius who created a digital monster that is destroying our democracies and societies,” he told Mr. Zuckerberg.

Jan Albrecht from the German Green Party asked for assurances that user data of Facebook and WhatsApp are not used by the company. But like many other questions, this one remained unanswered.

Mr. Zuckerberg ended the hearing by himself and pointed out that it was already 15 minutes overdue. Similar to his Congress hearing, he promised to answer open questions in writing.

Overall, Mr. Zuckerberg had a comfortable hearing in Brussels. In a long statement, he apologised for his company’s gaps and promised to fix all problems. But the whole process was embarrassing for the EU, as several observers put it

“That was exactly what to expect. It is in line with the company’s communication strategy which earns its money by marketing the private data of 2 billion people. For many years, journalists are making this experience with Facebook. They are fobbed off with general phrases or with links to the Facebook help pages. Openness is at best simulated,” wrote Jo Bager, a veteran IT journalist.

According to him, Mr. Zuckerberg used every weakness to benefit from the situation. In the U.S., politicians were badly prepared, while the Europeans gave him the opportunity to pick the question he wanted to answer.

Problematic hearing

“The whole concept of Zuckerberg’s hearing in Brussels was problematic. Facebook dictated Parliament on how the hearing should be,” said Ann Cathrin Riedel, chairwoman of the Berlin-based Think Tank for Liberal Digital Policy. “It was an easy play for Zuckerberg, without any real insight for us.”

Perhaps soft language is the wrong way to deal with Facebook. Since Friday, a new data privacy law has been implemented in the EU. The General Data Protection Regulation aims to give control to citizens over their personal data. Companies which violate the new law could face punishment. The first batch of complaints about Google, Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp have already been listed.

Emran Feroz is a freelance journalist based in Stuttgart, Germany

Top News Today

Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.