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Brussels pushes back on Zuckerberg pitch

Mark Zuckerberg came to Brussels looking to make friends.


Mark Zuckerberg came to Brussels looking to make friends.

But in a number of high-profile meetings Monday, European officials responded: no thanks.

Facebooks chief executive was scolded for the companys involvement in a series of recent scandals, asked to do more to clamp down on widespread misinformation on its global platform and urged to take greater responsibility for the role that the social networking giant plays in peoples daily lives.

The cold reception comes as the tech giant is facing mounting regulatory pressure in Europe, the United States and beyond. In response, Zuckerberg has pledged billions of dollars in resources to clamp down on everything from fake news to privacy violations — promises that have been met with widespread skepticism from policymakers across the globe.

“I spent time saying that when you have such a big position, you need to anticipate the role that you play in our societies and economies, and not wait for regulators or governments to tell you what you have to do,” said Thierry Breton, Europes commissioner for internal markets.

“Facebook cannot push away all the responsibility” — European Commission Vice President Vera Jourová

“Its up to them to see the impact of their responsibility before we tell them so,” the French policymaker added.

The pushback followed a full-court charm offensive by Zuckerberg to woo local lawmakers in his first trip to Brussels in early 2018 in the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica privacy scandal.

This time, the Facebook CEO focused on high-level policymakers, meeting with Margrethe Vestager, the regions competition chief, as well as Věra Jourová, the Commissions vice president in charge of fundamental rights and election integrity.

His outreach included the publication of suggestions on how to regulate online content, a hot topic for European officials, and claims, during his trip to the Munich Security Conference ahead of Brussels, that the tech giant would be willing to pay more tax to countries beyond the United States in proposed digital tax reforms that may be completed by the end of the year.

European Commission Vice President Margrethe Vestager | Christof Stache/AFP via Getty Images

Zuckerberg and senior Facebook executives say that they want governments to come up with new rules to police the online world, and that it should not be left to private firms to determine how much of the digital economy is run.

But with the European Union to unveil a raft of digital proposals later this week, many of which will touch on Facebooks core business, officials politely rebuffed many of these advances Monday, claiming the company must do more on its own to combat many of the regulatory challenges now confronting the company.

Brussels will publish new policies around artificial intelligence, the use of data and how the region will approach the global digital economy — efforts that will lead to years of hard-fought lobbying before final rules are passed.

“Facebook cannot push away all the responsibility,” Jourová said after her meeting with the tech boss. “Facebook and Mr. Zuckerberg have to answer themselves a question: Who do they want to be as a company and what values do they want to promote?'”

Wearing a blue suit and tie for his rounds of meetings inside the Commissions Berlaymont building in central Brussels, Zuckerberg told a small group of reporters before he met with EU officials that he wanted to find a way — laid out in recommendations on Monday — to work with authorities on a model for regulating social media platforms.

His idea would be for Facebook not to be treated like telecoms firms that just carry content, with no accountability for that material, nor like traditional publishers, which have control over such content. It comes amid a growing drumbeat on both sides of the Atlantic for social media companies to be held more responsible for what users posts online, including hate speech, terrorist content and other harmful material.

“Its not for us to adapt to those companies, but for them to adapt to us” — European Commissioner Thierry Breton

“Given that there are more than 100 billion pieces of content a day, and that were not generally producing the content, I think that that would be operationally unfeasible,” Zuckerberg said, in reference to strict content rules for Facebook and others.

Antitrust storm clouds

Despite Zuckerbergs whirlwind schedule — which was treated more like a state visit by a national leader than a series of meetings with a corporate executive — Commission officials remain overtly skeptical of Facebooks intentions.

Talking to reporters Monday, Breton dismissed Zuckerbergs suggestions on potential ways to regulate online content, saying they were “too low in terms of responsibility and regulation [and] there is nothing on market power,” in reference to Facebooks dominance over much of social media

Breton also dismissed Zuckerbergs proposal for a third status for Facebook that would fall between telecom provider and publisher while expressing skepticism at the idea of one single EU regulator. Taking the stage alongside the Facebook chief executive, the French official cut off the tech boss from speaking, something that Zuckerberg is not accustomed to.

“Its not for us to adapt to those companies, but for them to adapt to us,” he said.

Like Google and Microsoft before it, Facebook has often misjudged how to interact with policymakers in Brussels.

Officials routinely gripe that Facebook executives either do not understand Europes priorities or do not take their complaints seriously — something that Nick Clegg, the United Kingdoms former deputy prime minister and former MEP, has tried to change since he took over as the companys chief global lobbyist in early 2019.

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