Tensions soared between a handful of leading MEPs and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg as the 34-year-old billionaire avoided answering detailed questions on the company’s data policies during a meeting in the European Parliament on Tuesday evening (22 May).
Zuckerberg gave general responses to the MEPs, who came to the meeting ready to grill the CEO over Facebook’s recent data scandal, its advertising policy, and whether the social media giant is a monopoly.
The back-and-forth went on for more than an hour and a half. It was scheduled to last one hour and fifteen minutes. Most of the speaking time was taken up by the dozen MEPs in the room, and Zuckerberg spent only around 20 minutes responding to groups of their questions at the end.
As he struggled to bat away restless MEPs’ follow-up questions, Zuckerberg at one point said he wanted to be “sensitive to time because we’re 15 minutes over the scheduled meeting”. None of the MEPs had expressed concern over the time running out.
The exchange was peppered with slip-ups, accusations and heated comments. On several occasions, Zuckerberg appeared eager to move on to a different topic or to force a quick end to the meeting.
When Conservative British MEP Syed Kamall jumped in at the end of the meeting to remind Zuckerberg that he had not answered a question about how Facebook collects data belonging to people who are not users of the platform, Zuckerberg appeared anxious.
The CEO explained briefly that Facebook collects non-users’ data for security reasons. He then turned to Joel Kaplan, Facebook’s vice president of global public policy, and asked, “Were there any other themes that we want to get through?” Kaplan was seated next to Zuckerberg during the meeting.
Several MEPs faulted the format of the short meeting for Zuckerberg’s quick responses.
Kamall later said in a statement that the meeting was “a get out of jail free card and gave Mr. Zuckerberg too much room to avoid the difficult questions”.
The contrast to Zuckerberg’s performance before US lawmakers last month was clear: the CEO sat through more than ten hours of televised questioning before Congress.
Little time for grilling
Tajani has celebrated Zuckerberg’s agreement to speak in the Parliament as a victory. He negotiated the meeting for weeks, and Zuckerberg only confirmed last Wednesday (16 May) that he would travel to Brussels.
But the private format with only a small group of MEPs fell short of what the Parliament called for last month. Tajani wrote to Zuckerberg asking him to appear at a public hearing before four Parliament committees, after news broke in March that around 87 million Facebook users’ data was analysed without their consent by political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica.
In the end, there was hardly any time for MEPs to grill Zuckerberg. And Tajani announced on Monday, only one day before the meeting, that the exchange would not be totally private – Zuckerberg agreed that the Parliament could livestream the meeting.
In his opening remarks, Zuckerberg made an attempt to appeal to European lawmakers’ concerns over privacy, political advertising before elections and extremist content on the platform. He boasted about the company’s plans to hire local staff and open offices in more European cities.
But most MEPs went straight for the hardball questions.
Manfred Weber, the German head of the centre-right European People’s Party, said, “it is time to discuss breaking Facebook’s monopoly because it’s already too much power in one hand”.
Weber also suggested that it “cannot be a decision for a company, that should be a decision for societies” whether Facebook should be forced to make its algorithms public.
Facebook compliance with GDPR
Several legislators asked Zuckerberg to share detailed plans about how Facebook will comply with the GDPR, the new landmark EU data protection regulation that takes effect this Friday (25 May).
Claude Moraes, the British centre-left MEP who chairs the Parliament’s powerful Civil Liberties Committee (LIBE), asked Zuckerberg if Facebook will give users information about themselves that the platform sells to advertisers. He warned Zuckerberg that Facebook will be required to release that data under the GDPR.
German Green MEP Jan Philipp Albrecht, who led the Parliament’s negotiations on the GDPR, asked if Facebook will ask users to consent to its various different services. One measure in the law requires consent if companies process data for any purpose aside from what is necessary for one specific service.
But Zuckerberg spent only a few short minutes talking about the GDPR.
Belgian MEP Philippe Lamberts, the leader of the Parliament’s Green group, was frustrated by the rushed meeting. “I asked you six yes or no questions. I got not a single answer,” he said, adding, “You asked for this format for a reason”.
Tajani was forced to defend the small, private meeting at several points. He even insisted that Zuckerberg did not refuse to attend a public hearing.
As the meeting ended with MEPs raising their voices and demanding for Tajani to intervene, the Parliament president was backed into a corner. Zuckerberg stared intensely at Tajani as he tried to calm the angry MEPs.
“This is the format,” he said.
Zuckerberg to answer in writing
Tajani asked Zuckerberg to respond in writing “in the next days” to the MEPs’ questions. Zuckerberg agreed.
It might be the only chance European legislators have to quiz the Facebook CEO over the company’s knowledge of the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal. Zuckerberg will meet on Wednesday (23 May) with French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris.
But pressure for him to provide Europe’s lawmakers with more thorough explanations of the data breach is not going away.
Zuckerberg has so far ignored an order to speak before the UK Parliament.
After Tuesday’s meeting in Brussels finished, British MP Damian Collins said in a statement that it was “a missed opportunity for proper scrutiny on many crucial questions”. Collins chairs the Parliament’s digital and culture committee that has asked Zuckerberg to testify.
He insisted again that Zuckerberg should appear before the British committee “to provide Facebook users the answers they deserve”.