Zuckerberg's European inquisition more like a European vacation

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Mark Zuckerberg shakes hands with Antonio Tajani, president of the European Parliament.
Mark Zuckerberg shakes hands with Antonio Tajani, president of the European Parliament. Credit: Dario Pigantelli/Bloomberg

Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg had his day in European parliament and it went much easier than his appearance in Washington, D.C., last month. (Translation: The format made it easier to evade questions.)

The Facebook CEO was in Brussels, the seat of the European Union's government, to answer for privacy and data lapses brought to light from the Cambridge Analytica debacle. Cambridge Analytica was the third-party data provider that was allowed to access profiles on up to 87 million Facebook users and their friends, and it has been accused of abusing that data to influence elections in the U.S. and U.K.

Zuckerberg already faced two days of questioning by lawmakers in the U.S., and Tuesday it was the Europeans' turn to get answers on everything from Facebook's readiness for new data laws, known as GDPR, to how the platform combats fake news. Here's how Zuckerberg's European inquisition went:

Easy format

Zuckerberg escaped any harsh back and forth because questioning was limited. European representatives all asked their questions first, and then Zuckerberg responded to all of them in one go. Also the hearing lasted about an hour and a half as opposed to about 10 hours of hearings in the U.S., when lawmakers were able to individually interrogate the CEO.

What he didn't answer

A lot. At the end of the hearing, it was clear some lawmakers were unsatisfied with Zuckerberg's glossing over of many questions. A few of them made final attempts to get answers as the hearing was coming to a close.

"Will you allow users to escape targeted advertising," one lawmaker resubmitted in the final minutes. To which Zuckerberg responded with a slightly dismissive, "I'll make sure we follow up and get you answers." (An answer familiar to those who watched the U.S. hearings)

The question of targeted advertising is an important one for Europeans. The new General Data Protection Regulation taking effect this week governs how internet companies can collect personal data, with all users needing to be informed about practices and to give permission for their data to be shared.

GDPR is supposed to prevent companies from withholding services to users that don't want their data collected, and at least one EU lawmaker was concerned that Facebook would do just that.

Shadow profiles

As in the U.S. hearings, EU lawmakers were also concerned with Facebook's ability to collect data on people who don't use the service. Zuckerberg was asked why the social network needs to retain data on non-Facebook users, and what recourse those people have to stop being tracked.

Zuckerberg gave a now-familiar answer to keeping "shadow profiles" on non-users: He claimed Facebook needs to maintain their records because of security. For instance, he said, if a non-user tries to use the website to scrape information on users then Facebook can track those activities it says.

"Even if they're not signed in we have to understand how they're using the service to prevent bad activity," Zuckerberg said.

Ready for GDPR

Of course, the new privacy regulations were top of mind for EU lawmakers. The main question was whether Facebook has taken the necessary steps to address the new regulations.

"We do expect to be fully compliant on May 25," Zuckerberg said.

No Diamond and Silk

There was no mention of Diamond and Silk, aka Lynnette Hardaway and Rochelle Richardson, the pro-Trump personalities discussed in the U.S. hearings after becoming a cause célèbre among U.S. conservatives who claimed the duo were being censored on Facebook.

Still, the EU did have Nigel Farage to speak for conservatives concerned that Facebook is making changes that will disproportionately impact their messages. Facebook has been cracking down on fake news and clickbait, and in an effort to improve the quality of interactions on the platform has reduced the visibility of news. A number of conservative voices claim they're seeing a drop in engagement from fans, and suspect Facebook's algorithm is working against them. "Who decides what [content] is acceptable?" Farage asked.

It was a similar sentiment to the one expressed by conservatives like Senator Ted Cruz of Texas during Zuckerberg's hearing in Washington.

Facebook does not rank content or make any decisions on what's allowed on the "basis of a political orientation," Zuckerberg said.

Questions of trust

Facebook's dominance in the tech industry also came up for scrutiny. Some EU lawmakers asked how Zuckerberg views the competitive landscape, questioning whether it's a monopoly and if it needs breaking up. Facebook also owns Instagram and WhatsApp, and Zuckerberg was asked what competition exists in the marketplace.

Zuckerberg denied that Facebook is a monopoly, noting that the company only controls 6 percent of the advertising market, and that the space "feels competitive" to him.

Lawmakers even asked if Facebook should reveal its top secret algorithm so it can explain how it decides what content gets shown to what people, because of how much influence it wields over people. EU lawmaker Guy Verhofstadt wondered whether Zuckerberg would be remembered as a visionary alongside Bill Gates and Steve Jobs or if Facebook was on a darker path, "a digital monster destroying our democracies and our societies." He declined to answer those questions.

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