Zuckerberg grilled by EU parliament, but provides few answers

Members of the European Parliament finally got the chance on Tuesday to quiz Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg about everything from the Cambridge Analytica data scandal to the network’s alleged downranking of content posted by conservatives. What they didn’t get, however, was anything approaching substantive answers to those questions. In part, that was because of the unusual format of the meeting: Each of the 17 attendees—heads of the EU parliament’s main groups and committees—got to ask a question, and then in the remaining time, Zuckerberg got to answer some of them.

As more than one observer pointed out going into the meeting, this format more or less ensured that Zuckerberg would cherry-pick the questions he was either most interested in or most prepared to answer, and avoid the difficult ones. And that is exactly what happened. The meeting began with a statement by Zuckerberg, similar to the one he made in front of the US Congress, about how he regretted not taking action sooner to stop Russian trolls and data leaks. That was followed by more than an hour of questions, ranging from whether Facebook should be broken up because of its monopoly power to when the company expects to be compliant with the new General Data Protection Regulation rules.

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Nigel Farage, the former head of the UK’s right-wing Independence Party, asked the Facebook co-founder about the impact of recent algorithm changes, which the company says it introduced to focus on interpersonal engagement and remove clickbait and other forms of low-quality news. “Since January this year, you’ve changed your algorithms, and it’s led to a substantial drop to views and engagements for those who’ve got right-of-centre political opinions,” said Farage. “On average, we’re down about 25 percent over the course of this year. What interests me is, who decides what is acceptable? Why is there no transparency?”

EU Member of Parliament Guy Verhofstadt noted that the Facebook CEO had “apologized three times already this year” for the behavior of his company. “Are you capable to fix it? There has to be clearly a problem,” he said. “The only way I can see to fix it is to have public regulation. It’s a bit like the banks in ’07, ’08: They said, ‘Oh, we’ll regulate ourselves,’ but they didn’t.” Verhofstadt also said he thought Facebook downplayed its market monopoly, and argued that pointing to Apple and Google as competitors was like a car manufacturer saying, “We don’t have a monopoly, you can take a train or a plane!”

When it came time to answer, however, Zuckerberg simply reiterated his opening statement about how the network is trying hard to improve its ability to detect bad behavior, and that he now believes the company’s automated systems can flag close to 99 percent of the terrorist-related content before users notice it. A number of European Parliament members shouted additional questions at the Facebook CEO after the official time had run out, but Zuckerberg dodged them by saying he would have his staff respond later via email, much the same way he did in Congress.

Here’s more on Facebook and Zuckerberg’s ongoing apology tour:

  • Business Insider published the full text of Zuckerberg’s opening statement to the European Parliament. In it, the Facebook CEO maintains, “We’re committed to Europe. Ireland is home to our European Headquarters. London is home to our biggest engineering team outside the United States; Paris is home to our artificial intelligence research lab; and we have data centers in Sweden, Ireland and Denmark, which will open in 2020.”
  • The broader backdrop to the EU’s questioning of Zuckerberg and Facebook is the imminent introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation, an EU law that will restrict what platforms like Facebook can do with a user’s data. The rules allow regulators to fine companies up to 4 percent of their global revenue, which for Facebook would be about $1.6 billion.
  • The Facebook CEO may have testified before the European Parliament, but the British government is still waiting for Zuckerberg to accept their invitation to do the same in the UK. He has refused to attend a hearing on the Cambridge Analytica data leak, even after British politicians threatened to hit him with a formal summons that would take effect if he ever sets foot in the UK.
  • MP Damian Collins, the chairman of the UK’s Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport committee said in reaction to the hearing that “questions were blatantly dodged” by Zuckerberg on issues such as data sharing between WhatsApp and Facebook and the use of what are known as “shadow profiles” constructed for people who aren’t on the social network.
  • European Union regulators have threatened that if Facebook and other social platforms don’t prove that they can do a better job with protecting users’ data and preventing foreign actors from meddling during elections, they could be hit with new regulations that would force them to do so. EU Security Commissioner Julian King has said either voluntary or mandatory protections need to be in place before the European Union elections in 2019.

 

Other notable stories:

  • Whitney Phillips, a researcher working with the Data & Society institute, has released a report looking at the amplification of extremism online that argues journalists covering members of the far-right fringe  “played directly into these groups’ public relations interests. In the process, this coverage added not just oxygen, but rocket fuel to an already-smoldering fire.”
  • Mei Fong writes for CJR about the unprecedented rollback of journalistic freedom that has taken place in Southeast Asia over the past few years, including repeated attacks on the legitimacy of independent news outlets such as Rappler in the Philippines, and the jailing of Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo in Myanmar. Joel Simon wrote about the latter case for CJR and how Amal Clooney has been instrumental in fighting for the rights of jailed journalists around the world.
  • Lesley Stahl of CBS News says that during a conversation with President Trump, she asked why he continually attacks the “fake news media,” and he said: “You know why I do it? I do it to discredit you all and demean you all, so when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you.” Many journalists have suspected that was the reason, and now it’s on the record.
  • Indian journalist Rana Ayyub writes in The New York Times about being targeted and harassed by a coordinated social media campaign, following her political reporting on the government of Narendra Modi. Ayyub says recent attacks have included falsely attributing to her a quotation in support of child rapists, and a pornographic video with her face digitally superimposed on one of the actors.
  • The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists has published what it calls West Africa Leaks, a series of documents detailing the use of offshore holding accounts and other methods to hide millions of dollars in payments to government agencies and corporations, evidence of what the group says is widespread tax evasion and corruption in the region.

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Mathew Ingram is CJR's chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in The Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as Reuters and Bloomberg.