It was left to Belgian MEP (Member of the European Parliament) Phillipe Lambert to state the obvious during yesterday’s debacle in Brussels as Mark Zuckerberg’s Global Apology Tour touched down in Europe for 90 minutes.
As the Facebook CEO spewed out platitude upon platitude with an eye on the clock, Lambert complained that he had asked 6 ‘yes or no’ questions and received no answer to any of them:
Of course you asked for this format for a reason.
And it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Lambert was correct as Facebook played the European Parliament for fools. It was only last week that European Commission officials were crowing that they’d managed to get Zuckerberg to appear before MEPs after he refused twice to appear before UK legislators.
But the price tag for that agreement was that the session would be held in private. That was something that many MEPs were uncomfortable with and scored a success by getting the questioning streamed live after all.
Having achieved that, the European legislators proceeded to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by adopting a frankly barking mad format for their Q&A. Unlike the U.S. Congressional sessions that Zuckerberg went through earlier in the year, MEPs did not get to address the Facebook CEO one-on-one.
Instead, they all had to ask their questions up front while Zuckerberg took notes. Only once all 12 MEPs had asked their questions, did he have to offer up any responses - and those then took the form of whatever broad themes he chose to respond to. At one point, he actually 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?
This was a wasted opportunity as, in general, the questions that were asked were far more focused and tough than the fawning that went on in Congress. But the format gave Zuckerberg free range to hand wave the hard stuff away with what’s become a trademark response of:
I'll make sure we follow up and get you answers.
The format also meant that it was the politicians voices that dominated, not the tech billionaire at the center of a global data privacy scandal. With each politico doing the inevitable grandstanding and pitching anything up to 6 questions a piece, over an hour was spent just getting to the point where Zuckerberg was even expected to open his mouth!
The themes he was ultimately ready to talk about were all ones that had been aired many times before and for which he had come prepared. Take the question of enforced regulation to bring social media firms into line as an example.
Belgian MEP Guy Verhofstadt took a tough line in his questioning:
The only way in my opinion to do it—and I’m a liberal, a free marketeer—is to have public regulation to do so. It’s a little bit like with the banks in 2006, 2007, 2008. They said, ‘We’re going to do self-regulation. Don’t bother. We’re going to do it ourselves.’ The reality is that they didn’t do it themselves. And it was needed to have tough regulation.
Zuckerberg batted that one off with a pat response:
The question is, what is the right regulation. 'The important thing is to get this right, to make sure that we have regulatory frameworks that protect people, are flexible, don't inadvertently prevent new technologies, such as AI, from being able to develop, and don't prevent a student in their dorm room, like I was, from being able to develop the next great product.
Verhofstadt asked many of the better questions and was at the forefront of challenging Zuckerberg on Facebook’s mixed messages around GDPR:
You have told us that you are gonna apply [GDPR], but are you telling the truth in fact to us?” he asked. “Are you telling the truth because since the outbreak of Cambridge Analytica, you have massively transferred European data of non-European citizens out from Europe ... I have to tell you that is against the regulation, against GDPR, and against existing directive in Europe of 95/46, which is still applicable.
But who cares how good the question is when the person being asked it can then simply state that he “fully expects” Facebook to be GDPR compliant and then move on to his next preferred topic.
The rights of the right
A far more distasteful line in questioning came from gloating British MEP Nigel Farage, who thanked Facebook for the rise of right wing populism around the world, citing Brexit, Donald Trump and last week’s Italian elections as examples:
Historically, of course, it's true that through Facebook and other forms of social media, there’s no way that Brexit or Trump or the Italian election could have ever possibly happened. It was social media that allowed people to get around the back of mainstream media.
Farage then went on to complain that he wasn’t seeing enough right-of-center activity online and accused Facebook of deliberately targeting him and his fellow travellers:
Since January this year you've changed your modus operandi, you changed your algorithms and it has led directly to a very substantial drop in views and engagements for those that have got right-of-centre opinions. Just look at President Trump’s numbers; on a much smaller scale, look at mine; look at thousands of other conservative commentators. On average, we’re down 25% over the course of this year.
Zuckerberg’s face at the moment of being essentially handed responsibility for these political victories, at a time when accusations of electoral interference are still being investigated around the world, was one of the few amusing moments in yesterday’s hearing.
But again, Farage failed to land a punch as Zuckerberg calmly stated the Facebook party line:
We have never and will not make decisions on what content is allowed or allow ranking on the basis of political orientation.
And if anyone was in any doubt about who was running the show yesterday, look no further than the moment when Zuckerberg pointed out that he had “a plane to catch” - his own private jet! - and stated:
I am conscious we are 15 minutes over time.
In other words - your time’s up, Europe.
Jan Philipp Albrecht, digital policy spokesperson for the Greens in the European Parliament, said after the hearing that it showed that:
Facebook and other big internet companies realize they can't mess with the EU.
I don’t know what he’d been watching, but it certainly wasn’t the one that had Zuckerberg walking all over the European legislators.
A more accurate assessment comes from Damian Collins, Chair of the UK Government’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee:
What a missed opportunity for proper scrutiny on many crucial questions raised by the MEPs..the format of questioning allowed Mr Zuckerberg to cherry-pick his responses and not respond to each individual point. I echo the clear frustration of colleagues in the room who felt the discussion was shut down.
Apart from a handful of deluded Eurocrats filled with their own sense of importance, that’s a pretty universal view today from what I can see from coverage of the hearing. Collins has repeated his demand for Zuckerberg to appear before his Committee in the UK, but that’s rapidly turning into howling in the wind.
I’m sure Facebook will regard yesterday as another victory - and from a particular point of view, it was. A totally self-inflicted error by the European Parliament - despite Lambert’s accusation, it wasn’t Facebook that chose the format at all...
I do wonder what Zuckerberg himself really feels at this stage. Back to Guy Verhofstadt who asked what I thought was the most telling question:
You have to ask yourself how you will be remembered. As one of the three big internet giants, together with Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, who have enriched our world and our societies? Or, on the other hand, in fact, the genius that created a digital monster that is destroying our democracies and our societies? That’s the question that you have to put for yourself.
It’s also a question that I predict won’t be getting one of Zuckerberg’s infamous ‘we’ll get back to you’ written responses.