The results, for any critics of Facebook, were unsatisfying, as the format left the CEO with only a brief time to answer the many questions addressed to him. He left to rousing protests and appeals to the Parliament’s president, Antonio Tajani, to permit more questioning.
Zuckerberg’s visit to Belgium so soon after his Capitol Hill appearances threw the differences between European and American approaches to regulation and politics into relief, in a way that’s rarely seen so sharply. Namely, that Europe expects a far more balanced relationship between corporations and citizens. And its politicians know what they’re talking about.
Brussels brought competence
The lawmakers in Brussels were ready for the CEO. Throughout the questions, they referenced numerous moments from Zuckerberg’s Senate and House visits on April 10 and 11. Manfred Weber, a center-right Member of Parliament from Germany, cited Zuckerberg’s failure to answer Sen. Lindsey Graham’s (R-S.C.) request to name a company that competes with Facebook, to show it is not, in fact, a monopoly.
“Can you convince me not to break up Facebook,” he asked. Weber also asked about the opacity of the Newsfeed algorithm, and mused that perhaps it should be made public.
Guy Verhofstadt, a Belgian Member, took the most aggressive tone of the evening, noting that Facebook has issued 14 apologies, and that the company’s denial that it wasn’t a monopoly was like a car company saying, “We don’t have a monopoly, you can take a train or a plane!”
“The only way I can see to fix it is to have public regulation,” Verhofstadt said. “It’s a bit like the banks [during the financial crisis]. They said: ‘Oh, we’ll regulate ourselves,’ but they didn’t.”
Other Members poked holes in traditional lines in Facebook’s defense or expressed skepticism that it could follow through on its promises to flight election tampering, fake news, and all of its problems. Syed Kamall, a British free-market and conservative Member, who noted users must take some personal responsibility for their Facebook lives, questioned Facebook’s tracking of non-users.
Even if Facebook only keeps 10 days of data on non-users’ browsing, Kamall reasoned, people constantly use the internet, so the data file could be continuous and ever-present.
Zuckerberg, as he did in the U.S., acknowledged a willingness to be regulated, but stressed again that it should be done “right.”
“We’ll never be perfect on this,” said Zuckerberg. “Our adversaries, especially on the election side, will have access to some of the same AI tools as we do. It’s an arms race.”
Noting the stark difference in regulation between Europe and the US, Claude Moraes, a Member of Parliament from the U.K., put it, “We are here [gesture up high] in terms of regulation, and the United States is here [gesture much lower].”
The comparison could have been easily made to the quality of the questions raised as well.
A very different spectacle
The peculiar Brussels format, with the questions all front-loaded, left Zuckerberg with hardly enough time to answer any of them. This left one MEP to shout, “I asked six yes or no questions and did not get a single answer!”
As he did in the U.S., the Facebook CEO left promising follow-up responses that may or may not come.
But in the U.S., Facebook’s issues largely died down after Zuckerberg’s anticlimactic appearances before the Senate and House. With only a small portion of U.S. lawmakers asking questions that demonstrated a firm grasp of concepts as simple as Facebook’s business model, the modern online world, and the myriad issues facing Facebook, it was enough for Facebook, in that setting, to apologize, promise to do better, and to follow up with additional questions.
The markets sighed in relief, and Facebook’s stock has surged back 20% since its Cambridge Analytica low. FB shares were more than 1% higher in Wednesday afternoon trading, at $186.
In Europe, however, the tenor was one of frustration, the kind that won’t be soon forgotten. Part of that was the nature of the setting. The hours of Congressional questions and answers proved Zuckerberg was willing to engage, whereas he left the European chambers as things were beginning to heat up.
Though many questions and issues don’t appear to have much of a path forward, like in the U.S., leaving all sides to simply wait to see if Facebook’s teams fighting fake news, cyberbullying, election-tampering and more are enough, one thing does.
On Friday, Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation will take effect, requiring that Facebook comply with data portability, quick notification in data breaches, clear language when asking for consent, and most critically, the ability for a user to access their own data and make changes to correct or delete data.
But after Tuesday’s hearing, there’s little reason to think full compliance will be enough for Europe.