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.
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.
“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