EU lawmakers slam Mark Zuckerberg for avoiding questions

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg says sorry for data breach and fake news – but EU lawmakers slam him for failing to give ‘simple yes or no‘ answers during 90-minute Brussels showdown

European Parliament interrogation of boss Mark Zuckerberg descended into farce as he was able to dodge answering straight questions.

An odd hearing format, requested by the social media mogul, saw MEPs ask questions all at once  and Zuckerberg respond to them at the end.

This meant by an hour into the 90-minute hearing in on Tuesday they were still asking and he was yet to answer a single question. 

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Then since so many questions had been asked he was able to give vague answers and not answer any point specifically with little chance for follow up.

Several indignant MEPs tried to get their questions in at the end but were cut off by European Parliament president Antonio Tajani as time was up.

The Facebook chief promised to respond to the questions he hadn‘t addressed in writing – before exiting Parliament leaving behind an unsatisfied huddle of MEPs.

Zuckerberg‘s refusal to answer a straight questions, along with the format that enabled him to do so, prompted widespread criticism.

‘Today‘s pre-cooked format was inappropriate & ensured #Zuckerberg could avoid our questions,‘ Guy Verhofstadt, one of the MEPs at the hearing, said afterwards.

‘I trust that written answers from Facebook will be forthcoming. If these are not accurately answered in detail, the EU competition authorities must be activated and legislation sharpened.‘

Damian Collins, chair of the British Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee, said: ‘What a missed opportunity for proper scrutiny on many crucial questions raised by the MEPs.

‘Questions were blatantly dodged on shadow profiles, sharing data between WhatsApp and Facebook, the ability to opt out of political advertising and the true scale of data abuse on the platform.

‘Unfortunately, the format of questioning allowed Mr Zuckerberg to cherry-pick his responses and not respond to each individual point.

‘I echo the clear frustration of colleagues in the room who felt the discussion was shut down. 

‘It is time that Mr Zuckerberg agreed to appear in front of the DCMS committee to provide Facebook users the answers they deserve.‘ 

Mr Zuckerberg told EU lawmakers he was taking steps to prevent a repeat of a massive breach of users‘ personal data in a scandal that rocked the social network giant.

He acknowledged his platform had failed to get to grips with data protection and the spread of fake news but attempted to reassure MEPs that he is committed to tackling the issues.

The Facebook founder admitted he is an ‘arms race‘ to prevent political interference from ‘adversaries‘ who use AI tools to spread misinformation during elections.

Mr Zuckerberg also denied Facebook was a monopoly, but did accept some kind of regulation was inevitable.

He admitted during the hearing that in the past two years Facebook executives haven‘t done enough to ‘prevent these tools from being used for harm‘, in regards to the spread of fake news and political interference.

‘This goes for fake news, foreign interference in elections or developers misusing people‘s information. We didn‘t take a broad enough view of our responsibility,‘ he said.

‘That was a mistake, and I‘m sorry for it.‘ 

In response to questions about whether Facebook ought to be broken up, Zuckerberg said the question was not whether there should be regulation but what kind of regulation there should be.

‘Some sort of regulation is important and inevitable,‘ he said.

He declined to answer when leading lawmakers asked him again as the session concluded whether there was any cross use of data between Facebook and subsidiaries like WhatsApp or on whether he would give an undertaking to let users block targeting adverts.

Despite pledging to grill Mr Zuckerberg, EU lawmakers failed to land a telling blow over the course of 90 minutes.

Mr Zuckerberg‘s appearance in Brussels comes three days before tough new EU rules on data protection take effect. Companies will be subject to fines of up to four percent of global turnover for breaching them.

As he got up to leave, one MEP tried to get his question about whether Facebook will commit to separating data from WhatsApp and Facebook answered.  

Two others then repeated their questions on if Mr Zuckerberg would promise the ability to opt out from targeted advertising.

But Mr Tajani cut them off and said Mr Zuckerberg was free to leave as the session was over and their time was up.

‘He‘s not obliged [to come here], he‘s not a European citizen,‘ he said, explaining his actions in a press conference after the hearing.

He said the question period lasted a long time and Mr Zuckerberg had to leave right after.

Mr Zuckerberg took questions in turn from each of the MEPs. Among the questions asked were: 

Q: Is Facebook a monopoly in need of regulation and is the data breach scandal ‘the tip of the iceberg‘? 

Zuckerberg said the question was not whether there should be regulation but what kind of regulation there should be.

‘Some sort of regulation is important and inevitable,‘ he said. 

Later adding: ‘There were a number of questions about regulation… The question is, what is the right regulation,‘ 

‘The important thing is to get this right, to make sure that we have regulatory frameworks that protect people, are flexible, don‘t inadvertently prevent new technologies such as AI from being able to develop, and don‘t prevent a student in their dorm room, like I was, from being able to develop the next great product.‘ 

Q: Is Cambridge Analytica an isolated case? Can you guarantee that another scandal will not happen in three, six, nine months‘ time?‘ 

German MEP Manfred Weber asked, and continued: ‘Did you personally make the decision in 2015 to not notify your users?‘ 

Zuckerberg replied: ‘The good news with Cambridge Analytica is that the changes we made back in 2014 would prevent – it wouldn‘t be possible for an app developer to get access to that level of data.

‘But because there were a lot of apps using the data in 2014, we think it‘s good to go back and investigate the apps that got access to a lot of data before we locked down the platform. I do anticipate that there are going to be other apps that we‘ll find that we want to take down.

‘This is part of our shift towards not just trying to manage the system reactively. Now what we‘re doing is taking a much more proactive approach. We are going through and investigating ourselves up front.‘ 

Q: Will Facebook promise systematic transparency on all electoral campaigns and what is being done to prevent the spread of fake news?

‘This is one of our top priorities: making sure we prevent anyone from trying to interfere in elections, like Russians were trying to in 2016,‘ said the Facebook boss. 

‘We will never be perfect on this. Our adversaries – especially on the election side – people who are trying to interfere who have access to some of the same AI tools that we will.

‘It‘s an arms race and we will need to constantly be working to stay ahead.‘

He insisted Facebook faced competition from ‘new competitors coming up every day‘ and while it attracted 6% of global advertising, ‘clearly advertisers also have a lot of choice‘.

He also laid out the three categories of why fake news had been so proliferate in recent elections.

He said:  ‘The first is spam. The way you fight this is the same roadmap that companies have used to fight email spam: you take away the way to make profit. 

‘The second category is fighting fake accounts. We took down about 580m in the last quarter. 

‘The last category is people who are well-meaning but just happen to share something that is provably false. We don‘t want to be in the position of saying who is true or false – we work with third-party fact-checkers, and we‘re public about who they are, and if they say the story is provably false, we peg something to that and try to show it less.‘  

Q: How will Facebook tackle the issue of online bullying, hate speech and abuse?

‘Our policy has been to have someone flag things for us to look at reactively. Now, here in 2018, we have the ability to get more AI tools to be able to flag more content up front.

‘So if you look, for example, at terror content, one of the things I‘m proud of is that our systems can now flag 99% of the Al-Qaeda and ISIS content before anyone else flags them to us.‘ The company has also worked, he says, to improve its response to suicide and self-harm on Facebook Live, getting the response time down to 10 minutes.

‘We‘ll never be perfect on this. Our adversaries, especially on the election side, will have access to the same tools we do. But our vision is moving from one of reactive management to us more proactively flagging things.‘

Q: Facebook paying taxes and it‘s future in Europe 

Zuckerberg stressed the importance of Europeans to Facebook and said he was sorry for not doing enough to prevent abuse of the platform.

‘We didn‘t take a broad enough view of our responsibility. That was a mistake and I am sorry for it,‘ Zuckerberg said in his opening remarks. 

‘Facebook has always paid taxes in all the countries where we have operations set up, and we invest heavily in Europe. We have two data centres, and we‘re building another one in Denmark.

‘We‘re making significant investments, to contribute to the innovation and job growth here as well.‘   

Also in his opening remarks, Zuckerberg stressed Facebook‘s commitment to Europe, where it will employ 10,000 people by the end of the year, he said.

‘I believe deeply in what we‘re doing. And when we address these challenges, I know we‘ll look back and view helping people connect and giving more people a voice as a positive force here in Europe and around the world,‘ he said.  

Q: Is Facebook an open platform for ideas and does it have a political bias? 

‘We are committed to being a platform for all idea – one where people can use our service and share political ideas across the spectrum and a exchange a wide range of political discourse.‘

Adding: ‘We have never and will not make decisions on what content is allowed or allow ranking on the basis of political orientation.‘ 

Since the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook has suspended 200 apps from its platforms as it investigates third-party apps that have access to large quantities of user data.

Cambridge Analytica and its British parent, SCL Elections Ltd, have declared bankruptcy and closed down.

The Facebook chief‘s grilling by the European Parliament was live-streamed to the public after he staged a U-turn on Monday and agreed to a webcast, in a further bid to limit the fallout from the data scandal.

Angry EU lawmakers had objected to initial plans for it to be held behind closed doors. The questioning is proving to be more pointed than when Zuckerberg appeared in front of senators in the US.

Manfred Weber, the German MEP for Lower Bavaria, said he ‘will not back down until we get plausible answers‘ ahead of the grilling. 

Some lawmakers previously told the that they will suggest Facebook split off some services that don‘t comply with EU regulations.

Others said they planned to ask about monetary compensation for EU users whose data was caught up in the scandal. 

Jan Philipp Albrecht, a German lawmaker, said he planned to grill Zuckerberg on how Facebook will meet new privacy laws coming into effect this week.  

Facebook admitted that up to 87 million users may have had their data hijacked by British consultancy Cambridge Analytica, which worked for US President Donald Trump during his 2016 campaign.

The Silicon Valley giant has told the European Commission, the EU‘s executive arm, that the personal data of up to 2.7 million Europeans may have been sent inappropriately to Cambridge Analytica, which has since filed for bankruptcy in the US.

The hearing comes three days before the EU introduces sweeping new personal data protection rules, which the Facebook chief says he now welcomes.

Zuckerberg, who has repeatedly apologised for the massive data breach, told the US Congress in April that the more stringent EU rules could serve as a model globally.