Zuckerberg's bob and weave keeps Facebook's EU critics from landing blows, for now

24 May 2018 11:22am

23 May 2018. By Cynthia Kroet and Mike Swift

Mark Zuckerberg dodged everything EU lawmakers could throw at him last night, emerging unscathed but doing nothing to dissuade the array of European policymakers who want to regulate Facebook and other Internet giants.

The 34-year-old Facebook founder was mostly evasive during the hour-long hearing in the European Parliament, where the format — of grouped questions rather than a series of dialogues — allowed him to trot out prepared remarks and ignore difficult questions.

The Brussels hearing was in some ways more difficult for Zuckerberg than his April appearance before the US Congress, with EU lawmakers asking more detailed questions about Facebook’s business model than their American counterparts. But many were left visibly frustrated as the session drew to a close with their questions still unanswered.

“This can’t be the end of the story,” said Philippe Lamberts and Ska Keller, the leaders of the parliament’s Greens/EFA group, in a statement after the hearing. “We will insist on a follow-up and, if needed, additional regulation.”

Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of the liberal ALDE group, also called for regulation, saying that Facebook had shown itself incapable of fixing problems itself.

The European Commission has so far refrained from proposing new regulations for Facebook and other Internet giants, preferring to give them time to find their own solutions and wait for a sweeping new privacy regime, the General Data Protection Regulation, to come into force on May 25.

The GDPR rules “will have teeth and protect Europeans. They come just in time,” said Justice Commissioner Věra Jourová.

But reacting to the Brussels hearing, Jourová also made clear that she expects more than just reassuring words from Zuckerberg. “I want to believe these are the signs that Facebook will assume more responsibility for the huge amount of personal data that their users entrust in them,” she said.

— Déjà vu —

Zuckerberg offered sympathy for lawmakers’ concerns during the hearing, saying he was receptive to “the right regulation” and touting a new privacy tool under development that, he said, would give Facebook users more knowledge of and control over how their data were used.

But he offered little new substantive information, and lawmakers didn’t have the time to push him outside his comfort zone. His reference to “the right regulation,” for example, was almost identical to comments he made at last month’s US hearing; he gave no indication of what he would consider appropriate.

On competition concerns likewise, he repeated his argument that Facebook isn’t a monopoly because the average person uses eight different online communications tools, without addressing concerns such as how comparable these services are, or Facebook’s ability to share data with other social-media platforms that it owns such as Instagram and WhatsApp.

Zuckerberg promised to provide fuller, written answers to the lawmakers’ questions “in the next few days.” He may yet use this opportunity to sketch out a clear and comprehensive response to EU concerns, away from the glare of the cameras.

Or he may choose to stick to his well-thumbed script, as he did last night. But if that’s the path he chooses, he should prepare for more attempts by EU lawmakers to rein in his creation.

Andrea Jelinek