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Mark Zuckerberg’s appearance before European Parliament yields an empty spectacle

Mark Zuckerberg’s appearance before European Parliament yields an empty spectacle


History repeating

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Mark Zuckerberg’s appearance before European Parliament today was designed to give members a chance to ask Facebook’s CEO about pressing matters involving data privacy, terrorist content, disinformation, and monopoly power, among other issues. Over the course of an hour, Zuckerberg did face sharp inquiries about each of those subjects. But the format of the hearing allowed him only a few minutes to answer dozens of intricate questions. By the time the hearing was over, he had only offered some high-level answers that were largely recycled from his previous appearances before Congress.

The result, for anyone who has been paying attention to the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, was a strong sense of déjà vu. In response to questions about data privacy, Zuckerberg said Facebook was reviewing thousands of apps that once had broad access to user information, and the process would take months to complete. Terrorism? Nearly all posts promoting al-Qaeda and ISIS are removed automatically through systems powered by machine learning. Disinformation? Facebook is working to remove the economic incentives for publishing fake news, which addresses the majority of people posting it. And monopoly power? The average person uses eight different apps to communicate, Zuckerberg said — without noting, as usual, that Facebook owns three of them.

It was an anticlimactic response to a thundering volley of questions from the Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), who had clearly watched Zuckerberg’s appearances on Capitol Hill and sought to drill deeper on some of the more pressing questions about the company. Guy Verhofstadt, who may have been the sternest questioner Zuckerberg faced today, compared the CEO to a character from Dave Eggers’ satirical Silicon Valley novel The Circle and suggested that Zuckerberg compared unfavorably to predecessors like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.

“You have to ask yourself how you will be remembered.”

“You have to ask yourself how you will be remembered,” said Verhofstadt, the chairman of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe. “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, the genius that created a digital monster that is destroying our democracies and societies.”

Meanwhile, MEP Manfred Weber said European regulators should consider whether Facebook should be broken up into a series of smaller companies. “I think it’s time to discuss breaking up Facebook’s monopoly because it’s already too much power in only one hand,” said Weber. “So I ask you simply, and that is my final question: can you convince me not to do so?”

In response, Zuckerberg said the company held only about 6 percent of the global advertising market, and he said that people communicate on a wide range of services, forcing Facebook to continually adapt.

Members’ questions took up nearly the full 75 minutes allotted for the hearing, whose format was designed by Parliament’s president, Antonio Tajani. Zuckerberg’s answers went more than 15 minutes past the hearing’s allotted expiration time, at which point he stopped and said the company would follow up with a second, more technical presentation from one of his deputies and individual responses to any questions that had gone unanswered.

That drew howls of protest from Verhofstadt and a handful of other MEPs, who asked Tajani to extend the hearing. But Tajani declined, Zuckerberg left, and the crowd dispersed. Afterward, Verhofstadt called the hearing’s format “inappropriate.”

Public hearings with scandal-plagued CEOs often produce spectacles like these. Lawmakers get to appear tough, executives get to offer words of contrition, and the public gets to feel as if meaningful action has been taken. Zuckerberg’s initial resistance to appearing in person before European Parliament could be explained partially by the fact that he had already endured two such events, to seemingly little effect beyond the gradual dying down of Cambridge Analytica headlines.

Zuckerberg’s appearance before Parliament was similarly soporific. And it was similar to his appearances before Congress in another way, too: there’s little agreement among lawmakers on what the problem with Facebook actually is. Is it a narrow case of Facebook’s response to the Cambridge Analytica data scandal? Is it a broader problem about how social networks spread disinformation and extremism? Or is it a global problem about one company simply growing too powerful? Both at home and abroad, lawmakers have struggled to reach a consensus even on the scope of their inquiry.

And if they decided to address all three issues at once, they’d still likely struggle to design legislation that manages to address the particulars (which isn’t to say that no one should try). But the cacophony of questions from Parliament today — and the built-in escape hatch that allowed Zuckerberg to skate away after a brief response — suggest nothing is going to get done anytime soon.

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