EU Lawmakers Unimpressed with Facebook’s Zuckerberg
Members of the European Parliament made it clear in their meeting with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg last Wednesday that unease goes well beyond Cambridge Analytica and privacy concerns surrounding illegally obtained data used to target voters in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. Brussels has been trying to get answers for a long time now on the way Facebook approaches illegal content, bullying, data privacy and security, antitrust issues, and taxes in addition to their questions to Facebook and other companies about the way social media and online marketing companies operate more generally. Wednesday’s hearing was no change in that regard as MEPs asked questions for an hour about these same issues. But the format allowed Zuckerberg to avoid some of the more difficult questions, and few MEPs at the hearing received a direct answer.
Zuckerberg reiterated points that have been made before in his opening remarks: that Facebook underestimated the ability of certain groups to use its platform for nefarious purposes, and that it “was not prepared for coordinated misinformation operations” of the kind seen in 2016 during the U.S. presidential elections. He gave the same apology for Facebook’s role in the scandals of the past year as he did to Washington lawmakers just weeks prior. He believes that Facebook improved its ability to counter these operations in the French and German elections last year, but it is still improving how it does this, and in general Facebook will have 20,000 people working on safety and security by the end of this year in an effort to tackle this and other content-related issues on the platform. Facebook will also introduce a “clear history” option for users who want to delete the information held by Facebook for marketing purposes and retain their social profile on the site.
But MEPs seemed unimpressed by these statements, and they dug for details on how Facebook plans to have the capacity to provide the level of security, privacy, and content oversight that they expect for EU-based users as a matter of fundamental European values. They asked repeatedly about the decision-making process related to removing or approving content, and they received few specific answers.
Guy Verhofstadt, president of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe in the European Parliament, was particularly concerned that Facebook is attempting to fill the role of a public censor or communications authority in its efforts to police content on the platform, wondering whether Facebook should be allowed to continue in that role without regulatory oversight from actual public authorities with competence for that kind of activity in other sectors.
There was also a concern from multiple MEPs about whether Facebook should be considered a monopoly. MEP Manfred Weber, leader of the European People’s Party, went as far as to ask Zuckerberg to convincingly argue why Facebook should not be considered a monopoly, which he did address in his response by pointing out some of the options that advertisers have and the net positive that he believes Facebook has on European markets and small businesses. Most frustratingly, Philippe Lamberts of the Greens–European Free Alliance did not receive even one specific answer to simple yes-or-no questions in the hearing. Although Facebook did address some of his questions in its written response, larger framework questions remain unaddressed about how Facebook as a platform believes that it functions in relation to legal frameworks concerning media companies and so-called “neutral platforms.” These questions about the legal framework in which Facebook operates have also gone unanswered in hearings with U.S. politicians.
The European Parliament is clearly concerned with the moral and ethical issues surrounding the way Facebook and other social media platforms operate.
Zuckerberg did address some themes that concerned lawmakers, speaking on Facebook’s own concern about election security and how the company will prevent itself from becoming a platform that facilitates the disruption of democratic electoral processes. He also spoke about the company’s desire to participate in the formulation of new regulations; its stance on the payment of taxes to EU member states, which Facebook has stated it has done to the extent required by law; on efforts to prevent political bias from creeping into the content review process; and Facebook’s ongoing efforts to eliminate the potential for further breaches of data usage rules of the type exploited by Cambridge Analytica. However, he completely avoided the actual scale of data abuse on Facebook, concerns over shadow profiles that are created to track non-users of Facebook, data sharing between platforms and legal entities (e.g. EU courts have repeatedly demanded that Facebook and WhatsApp not share data between them), and whether Facebook would explore options to allow users to opt out of political advertising or advertising as a whole, whether it is for a fee or for free. Some of this was addressed in the written follow-up, but MEPs will not like some of the answers, such as the opinion that data sharing between platforms is necessary for security purposes or the flat refusal to explore options for a paid version of Facebook, which is strictly a business decision from the company’s perspective.
The European Parliament is clearly concerned with the moral and ethical issues surrounding the way Facebook and other social media platforms operate. Facebook is certainly not responsible for providing a final answer to many of these questions, but they can at least participate in the decision-making process. One problem in the conversation is a differing set of standards between lawmakers and Internet platforms. Zuckerberg noted that platforms like Facebook are bringing in new solutions — such as artificial intelligence — to increase the efficiency of their content review, but these systems and even manual review will never be 100 percent perfect in their operation. Content review is an arms race with developers and users that seek to violate the terms and conditions of Facebook to their own benefit, whether it breaks the law or not. Lawmakers should not expect perfection and should not hold companies accountable for it. The trouble for them is to formulate effective legislative and regulatory measures that force compliance with the principles and values that they expect of companies interacting with EU citizens while allowing adequate leeway for exceptional situations and for companies to adapt in this technological arms race with adversaries of all types.
The best way to do this is in collaboration with those same companies. Zuckerberg has stated repeatedly that he thinks the EU got things right with respect to the GDPR regulation that went into effect days ago, and that he would like Facebook to participate in the formulation of any future regulatory measures related to the platform. From the European Parliament perspective and also from the perspective of lawmakers in the various EU member states, the door to participation in that process is wide open, and hearings like the one last Wednesday show that opportunities exist to engage lawmakers as they consider the right measures. Zuckerberg, however, has yet to walk through that open door and participate in good faith in the process, which begins by giving MEPs and other lawmakers clear answers to their clear questions about how Facebook fits into the legal, regulatory, and ethical landscape at this moment and how it would like to do so in the future. In that sense, the meeting in Europe’s capital felt more like a press conference than a parliamentary hearing.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.