Mark Zuckerberg's refusal to answer questions in the House of Commons has, rightly, been met with condemnation all round.
But yesterday it was obvious why that was wise from a personal point of view as Facebook’s Chief Technology Officer appeared before the Digital, Culture, Media and Sports Select Committee as part of its investigation into Fake News.
Unlike the ludicrously tame - and at times, fawning - questions posed to Zuckerberg by U.S. Congress members earlier this month, it was a far, far tougher time for Mike Schroepfer as he faced a barrage of criticism in an uncomfortable session that ended with the Committee stating that the Facebook exec had failed to answer 40 of its questions.
The dawning realisation of what was happening looked writ large on the CTO’s face. Conservative MP Julian Knight was particularly blunt as he accused the Facebook exec:
I put it to you today, sir, that Facebook is a morality-free zone destructive to a fundamental right of privacy. You aren't an innocent party wronged by the likes of Cambridge Analytica You are the problem. Your company is the problem.
Schroepfer, of course, took a different view:
I respectfully disagree with that assessment. You want us to say we're responsible, which we have on multiple occasions, and you want transparency on ads and other things.'The core of our job is to build a service which helps millions of people connect with each other around the world every day.
Some of the questioning clearly took Schroepfer by surprise, such as when Committee Chairman Damien Collins asked him what would be the next car that he (Schroepfer) would be buying and what was the square footage of his home? When the Facebook CTO said he didn’t know, Collins riposte was:
But these are things that Facebook knows about us, isn't it?
Schroepfer demurred on that, saying that it was unlikely that this was the case, adding:
It knows I like coffee and there are certain things that I am interested in like technology, travel and cats.
If social media pussy cat references were meant to soften the atmosphere, it was an ill-judged gambit. The U.S. exec also managed to irritate the U.K. legislators when asked about the impact of political advertising. While arguing that Facebook has found no evidence of any influence exerted over the outcome of the Brexit referendum, Schroepfer was laughed down when he tried:
We were slow to understand the impact at the time and I am way more disappointed in this than you are.
Realising what he’d done, he quickly followed up with:
'I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said that.
Didn't read the small print
Among the more startling revelations during the session was an admission that Facebook execs had not read the terms and conditions of the app designed by Cambridge academic Aleksandr Kogan, which was used to harvest user data on behalf of Cambridge Analytica.
As for Zuckerberg’s refusal to attend the Committee, that’s not sitting well, particularly as he’s now agreed to a grilling in the European Parliament. Committee Chairman Collins raged:
What has frustrated us has been a pattern of behaviour, an unwillingness to engage. When we asked if it would investigate on the same terms that it had in America, it refused to do so and then changed its mind.
When we had our session in Washington we asked… expressly about data breaches. We since learned that the company knew an awful lot more than it told us, and we wouldn't have learned any of that if it hadn't been for investigative journalists.
Collins said that the next step would be to demand written answers to 40 points of questioning that had gone unanswered. If that doesn’t work, a “formal summons” will be issued on Zuckerberg the next time he’s in the UK. He said:
Mark Zuckerberg's right-hand man, whom we were assured could represent his views, today failed to answer many specific and detailed questions about Facebook's business practices. We will be asking him to respond in writing to the committee on these points; however, we are mindful that it took a global reputational crisis and three months for the company to follow up on questions we put to them in Washington DC on 8 February.
The one thing that Schroepfer said that will have universal agreement was when he passed responsibility over to his absent boss:
The buck stops with Mark.
It does indeed, which is why the Facebook CEO’s refusal to face up to that while also professing that his firm is stepping out of the way to allow UK government data protection officials to conduct their own inquiry strikes so many as craven and cowardly.
Schroepfer was sent into the lions den yesterday and got the mauling that should belonged to Zuckerberg - and the one that should have been seen in Washington earlier this month.
Now, onto Europe - and given some of the naked anti-U.S. sentiments in Brussels and the data protection/privacy high-bars in some EU states, Zuck might end up wishing he’d taken the chance for a dry run in London yesterday.