Analysis The European stop on Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook apology tour on Tuesday amounted to little more than a live read-out of Facebook’s well-rehearsed platitudes and tired PR lines.
The format of the session at the European Parliament meant that the embattled boss of the data-slurping biz effectively got a night off, being allowed to dodge questions from EU politicians, avoid follow-ups and even bring the hearing to a close himself.
It saw Zuckerberg give a brief opening statement with the requisite apology, after which the assembled MEPs took up about an hour of the allotted 70 minutes making statements and putting questions – mostly decent ones – to Zuckerberg, who was then given free rein to answer, and ignore, them as he saw fit.
“You’ve raised a lot of important questions,” Zuck said after the dozen speakers had wasted their collective breath, adding – no doubt with a sense of glee not yet experienced by any exec in these recent political Q&A sessions – “I’ll use the remainder of time to get through as many as I can.”
And so, he proceeded to assign the MEPs’ specific questions into “themes”, rephrasing them to suit topics he wanted to bring up, and repeating much of what has been said ad nauseum by the business since the scandal over Cambridge Analytica brought the extent of Facebook’s data slurping to public attention.
Don't stop me if you've heard these before
This included nice words about tackling fake news; references to the ad transparency tool due to launch this summer; a nod to efforts to improve automatic detection of fake accounts and terrorist content; and highlighting the biz’s plans to double the number of people working on safety and security (a selfless move, Zuck implied, as he observed that it doesn't matter that the hires will likely affect the business’ profitability).
Among the specific questions Zuck saw fit to sidestep were those on shadow profiles, tracking of non-users, breaking up the Facebook monopoly, black-box algorithmic decision-making, regulating the industry, and yes-or-no questions on increasing transparency on the company’s tax and business affairs.
Instead, he gave broad opinions on these areas, saying for instance that “some sort of regulation is important” but that this should be flexible enough so it didn’t stop the “next student sitting in a college dorm room” from innovating.
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On the issue of monopoly, he said that it “feels like new competitors are coming up every day”, and argued that Facebook has a “pro-competitive effect” because it offers tools to small businesses.
The General Data Protection Regulation - the flagship privacy law generating column miles this week as the enforcement date edges closer - received even less attention, with the CEO dedicating just two minutes to superficial observations about privacy settings (which do not compliance make).
Zuckerberg also avoided having to engage with a few more philosophical questions, such as the one posed by Labour MEP Claude Moraes about the moral obligations the firm has to both users and non-users, and another from liberal leader Guy Verhofstadt.
How does Zuckerberg wants to be remembered, the outspoken MEP asked: As one of the three internet giants who enriched the world (citing Jobs and Gates as the other two), or a “genius who created a digital monster that is destroying our societies”?
Zuck: OK, I think we're done here
Once Zuckerberg felt he’d done enough - and with very little interjection from the assembled members - he stated: “I want to be sensitive to time, because we’re 15 minutes over…”
And then, to the sound of jaws hitting keyboards and a flurry of incredulous tweets, Zuck attempted to sum up the session with his usual saccharine comments and promises to follow up afterwards:
“I realise there were a lot of specific questions I didn’t get time to answer… I think I was able to address the high level areas in each and I’ll make sure I follow up with each of you afterwards.”
A brief but dramatic exchange followed, as the politicians in the room appeared furious at the way their star witness had failed to answer any of their specific questions, with many clamouring to restate their queries.
President of the European Parliament, and mastermind of the session, Antonio Tajani - under the watchful eye of Zuckerberg - was having none of it, and called an immediate end to the proceedings.
Immediately afterwards Tajani held a brief press conference in which he tried to put a positive spin on events, saying the meeting was “very much a success” and "showed we can defend citizens rights in the union".
When asked about the format, Tajani repeatedly praised Zuckerberg for turning up at all, emphasising that he was not obliged to and that he “spent half an hour” answering the questions, and that the 90-minute session went on “longer than planned”.
Suffice to say, the hearing went down like a lead balloon with commentators from all sides.
UK Conservative MP Damian Collins, who has repeatedly tried - and failed - to get the exec to appear in front of the committee he chairs in the House of Commons, being particularly unimpressed.
Today's session in the EP was a missed opportunity. An hour of questions, followed by a lengthy statement from Zuckerberg, with all difficult questions dodged. The format, which was agreed by Facebook, led to no real scrutiny. It is time that he appeared in front of @CommonsCMS— Damian Collins (@DamianCollins) May 22, 2018
Ahead of today's session, there was much speculation - and grandstanding - from European politicians about the grilling Zuckerberg would face from the leaders of privacy and data protection law.
However, it's now abundantly clear that Zuckerberg would indeed have faced a much tougher time if he had made an appearance in the UK's parliament on his trip across The Pond.
Not only have the MPs on the digital committee thus far shown a decent grasp of the situation, posing clear and informed questions to those that have turned up to give evidence, they also have no qualms about holding five-hour-plus evidence sessions full of at times aggressive cross-examination. ®
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