Facebook tries out charm offensive with four EU Commissioners

Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg met with four EU Commissioners and vowed to improve the tech giant's work to fight hate speech and fake news. [European Commission]

Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg attempted to woo a team of four EU Commissioners during closed-door meetings Tuesday (23 January) on tense issues like hate speech and online platform transparency.

Before meeting with the Commission’s digital policy, tech and anti-terrorism chiefs, Sandberg headlined a large Facebook conference in the centre of Brussels, where she heaped praise on the EU executive.

She told the audience that Facebook is trying to improve its technology and hire more staff to find and take down hate speech, one of the areas that has caused uproar among European politicians over the last year.

“We look to Europe for continued leadership in this area,” Sandberg said.

The Commission has been at the centre of that fight: tech firms were relieved last week when EU justice chief Vera Jourova announced that she does not want to propose legislation that would force online platforms to remove hate speech, despite growing pressure from some member states. Instead, Jourova plans to stick to a non-binding agreement with Facebook and a handful of other US-based tech giants.

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Sandberg has been Facebook’s chief operating officer since 2008 and authored the book Lean In about women and work in 2013. She spoke after EU digital Commissioner Mariya Gabriel at the Facebook conference on Tuesday, and thanked her for “empowering female entrepreneurs”.

Gabriel and Sandberg’s joint appearance did not feature heated debate over some of the glaring tensions between EU lawmakers and the American tech giant. The Commission’s history with Facebook has been thorny: a privacy complaint against the company was responsible for toppling an EU-US data sharing agreement in 2015, and the Commission slapped the firm with a €110 million fine last year for sharing misleading information in a probe of its acquisition of WhatsApp.

Sandberg glossed over those issues and vowed to step up the company’s work to promote privacy, and fight hate speech and fake news.

The Commissioner also stayed away from hot-button issues. She only briefly referenced her plans to hit online platforms with new legislation this spring to crack down on “unfair practices” and force them to be transparent about their deals with smaller businesses.

Gabriel defended the EU’s “values” and tech policies.

“We don’t want to copy the Silicon Valley approach,” Gabriel insisted.

Sandberg’s visit to Brussels comes one day after she met with French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris. Facebook announced on Monday that it will spend an additional €10 million to expand its France-based research lab focused on artificial intelligence.

The Facebook executive’s effort to win over European politicians didn’t stop there. Sandberg played lip service to some of the Commission’s other priorities on tech policy by name-dropping the massive overhaul of EU privacy law that is set to go into effect in May. She also spoke of Facebook’s “responsibility” to clamp down on hate speech and posts containing false information, including through efforts to explain how the company sells advertising.

“It’s clearer than ever that we live in a polarised world and we see that in elections, we see that in the conversations we have, we see that in the policies people are discussing,” Sandberg said, addressing recent reports of fake information that accounts spread on Facebook to influence voters.

Facebook said last week that it is continuing an investigation into potential Russian involvement on propaganda that was shared on the platform ahead of the 2016 Brexit referendum.

She spent much of her speech explaining how the tech giant is taking down posts and user accounts that promote fake news—one of the areas where Gabriel is trying to make her mark before the Commission’s term ends next year.

Gabriel is in charge of an EU strategy on fake news. She will announce details of the plan in May, but has already said that she wants to address how fake news is financed, and include measures to make social media platforms more transparent.

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