Mark Zuckerberg has left the building. And he left many European lawmakers outraged after avoiding their questions on everything from data protection to fake news and election security.
The long-awaited hearing in Brussels had been billed as a showdown between the Facebook CEO and EU lawmakers who drew up the worlds most stringent privacy rules, especially after Zuckerberg had agreed to have the event broadcast live on the internet.
But the event, which lasted an hour and a half, saw Zuckerberg fail to satisfy European demands for answers and the European Parliament roundly mocked for using a format that let the Facebook boss get away with it. MEPs asked all their questions before the Facebook boss had to respond, leaving them with no time to follow up.
It ended with Zuckerberg vowing to get back to his questioners with more specific answers at a later date — before heading to Paris for a meeting with Emmanuel Macron.
“The responses we received today from Mr. Zuckerberg, and indeed the restricted format of the hearing, were totally inadequate,” Liberal MEP Guy Verhofstadt, who fired some of the sharpest barbs during the hearing, said in a statement.
“I have no doubt that Mr. Zuckerberg is a genius, but there is a risk his legacy will be that he created a company akin to Frankensteins monster, which spiraled out of his own control.”
Udo Bullman, the leader of the Socialists & Democrats group, echoed that frustration and called for another meeting to grill Zuckerberg on privacy.
“The format of the meeting was a farce,” he said. “Zuckerberg did not answer many of the direct questions put to him, and the few answers that we heard were disappointing.”
The chorus of frustration underscored the European Parliaments limited powers, and exacerbated a standoff between the EU and the worlds largest social network over data collection practices that have sparked a global scandal over alleged privacy infringements.
Mea culpa — again
Zuckerberg, who agreed at the last minute to have his European Parliament hearing broadcast live, started the meeting with a cheerful: “Its good to be back in Europe!”
He then launched into a well-rehearsed mea culpa routine over Facebooks data protection record, saying: “We didnt take a broad enough view of our responsibilities. That was a mistake, and Im sorry.”
The leaders of the Parliaments political factions had prepared for the encounter, hoping to corner the CEO on specific issues including privacy, competition and election manipulation. The tone of questions from the start was much sharper, and much harsher, than those that Zuckerberg faced in U.S. Congress a few months ago.
“Will you guarantee that no manipulation from foreign and hostile interference … on your platform can happen?” asked Bullmann. “In which way will you adapt your business model to make sure that doesnt happen?”
Zuckerberg responded: “We werent prepared enough for the kind of coordinated misinformation campaigns that were now aware of.” He said applications like the ones used by Cambridge Analytica were now more thoroughly checked before being granted access to users personal data.
Manfred Weber, leader of the center-right European Peoples Party group, came out swinging.
“It is time to discuss breaking the Facebook monopoly,” he said, asking Zuckerberg to convince him that the social network should not be broken up.
But the tech CEO, who divided questions into themes that he could address generally rather than one-by-one, had an answer ready. Facebook, he said, controls only 6 percent of the global advertising market and faces plenty of competitors, adding that there are “18 million small businesses that use Facebook tools” to grow their business.
The MEPs then played their strongest card: Facebooks compliance, or otherwise, with the European Unions new privacy regime, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which enters into force on Friday, and includes a range of beefed-up protections and safeguards.
“You have to remember that youre here in the EU where we created GDPR,” said Claude Moraes, chairman of the civil liberties committee that led the drafting of the bill.
Yet Zuckerberg wasted little time explaining how his company would comply with the rules. His answers on GDPR lasted about three minutes.
Poisoned gift for Parliament president
Parliaments leaders worked hard to bring the social media boss to Brussels. Parliament President Antonio Tajani had lobbied Facebook for weeks to send its CEO but only last week landed a confirmation.
Initially, Zuckerberg would speak only behind closed doors, prompting a wave of protest from MEPs who argued that the event should be public. Tajani tried to set the record straight at the outset of the meeting.
“Todays meeting is just a starting point as we move towards a new form of governance for platforms,” he said. “We are the regulators.”
And yet, just minutes after the meeting ended, Tajani faced criticism about the format he had negotiated, which many said did not allow for proper scrutiny of the chief executive responsible for a privacy breach that affected millions of Europeans.
Jan Philipp Albrecht, a key MEP on data protection issues who was invited to the meeting, said Parliament should have insisted on a question-and-answer format and “not lengthy statements and a lengthy answer from Mr Zuckerberg.”
But he added the tech CEO wouldnt agree to anything else.
Tajani told POLITICO that “it was an open debate.”
“We need more answers in the next days,” he said.