Speaking in front of EU lawmakers today Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg namechecked the GDPR’s core principles of “control, transparency and accountability” — claiming his company will deliver on all that, come Friday, when a new European Union data protection framework, GDPR, starts being applied, finally with penalties worth the enforcement.
However there was little transparency or accountability on show during the session, given the upfront questions format which saw Zuckerberg cherry-picking a few comfy themes to riff on after silently absorbing an hour of MEPs’ highly specific questions with barely a facial twitch in response.
The questions MEPs asked of Zuckerberg were wide ranging and often drilled deep into key pressure points around the ethics of Facebook’s business — ranging from how deep the app data misuse privacy scandal rabbithole goes; to whether the company is a monopoly that needs breaking up; to how users should be compensated for misuse of their data.
Is Facebook genuinely complying with GDPR, he was asked several times (unsurprisingly, given the scepticism of data protection experts on that front). Why did it choose to shift ~1.5BN users out of reach of the GDPR? Will it offer a version of its platform that lets people completely opt out of targeted advertising, as it has studiously avoided doing so so far.
Why did it refuse a public meeting with the EU parliament? Why has it spent “millions” lobbying against EU privacy rules? Will the company commit to paying taxes in the markets where it operates? What’s it doing to prevent fake accounts? What’s it doing to prevent bullying? Does it regulate content or is it a neutral platform?
Zuckerberg made like a sponge and absorbed all this fine-grained flak. But when the time came for responses the data flow was not reciprocal; Self-serving talking points on self-selected “themes” was all he had come prepared to serve up.
Yet — and here the irony is very rich indeed — people’s personal data flows liberally into Facebook, via all sorts of tracking technologies and techniques.
And as the Cambridge Analytica data misuse scandal has now made amply clear, people’s personal information has also very liberally leaked out of Facebook — oftentimes without their knowledge or consent.
But when it comes to Facebook’s own operations, the company maintains a highly filtered, extremely partial ‘newsfeed’ on its business empire — keeping a tight grip on the details of what data it collects and why.
Only last month Zuckerberg sat in Congress avoiding giving straight answers to basic operational questions. So if any EU parliamentarians had been hoping for actual transparency and genuine accountability from today’s session they would have been sorely disappointed.
Yes, you can download the data you’ve willingly uploaded to Facebook. Just don’t expect Facebook to give you a download of all the information it’s gathered and inferred about you.
The EU parliament’s political group leaders seemed well tuned to the myriad concerns now flocking around Facebook’s business. And were quick to seize on Zuckerberg’s dumbshow as further evidence that Facebook needs to be ruled.
Thing is, in Europe regulation is not a dirty word. And GDPR’s extraterritorial reach and weighty public profile looks to be further whetting political appetites.
So if Facebook was hoping the mere appearance of its CEO sitting in a chair in Brussels, going through the motions of listening before reading from his usual talking points, that looks to be a major miscalculation.
“It was a disappointing appearance by Zuckerberg. By not answering the very detailed questions by the MEPs he didn’t use the chance to restore trust of European consumers but in contrary showed to the political leaders in the European Parliament that stronger regulation and oversight is needed,” Green MEP and GDPR rapporteur Jan Philipp Albrecht told us after the meeting.
Albrecht had pressed Zuckerberg about how Facebook shares data between Facebook and WhatsApp — an issue that has raised the ire of regional data protection agencies. And while DPAs forced the company to turn off some of these data flows, Facebook continues to share other data.
The MEP had also asked Zuckerberg to commit to no exchange of data between the two apps. Zuckerberg determinedly made no such commitment.
Claude Moraes, chair of the EU parliament’s civil liberties, justice and home affairs (Libe) committee, issued a slightly more diplomatic reaction statement after the meeting — yet also with a steely undertone.
“Trust in Facebook has suffered as a result of the data breach and it is clear that Mr. Zuckerberg and Facebook will have to make serious efforts to reverse the situation and to convince individuals that Facebook fully complies with European Data Protection law. General statements like ‘We take privacy of our customers very seriously’ are not sufficient, Facebook has to comply and demonstrate it, and for the time being this is far from being the case,” he said.
“The Cambridge Analytica scandal was already in breach of the current Data Protection Directive, and would also be contrary to the GDPR, which is soon to be implemented. I expect the EU Data Protection Authorities to take appropriate action to enforce the law.”
Damian Collins, chair of the UK parliament’s DCMS committee, which has thrice tried and failed to get Zuckerberg to appear before it, did not mince his words at all. Albeit he has little reason to, having been so thoroughly rejected by the Facebook founder — and having accused the company of a pattern of evasive behavior to its CTO’s face — there’s clearly not much to hold out for now.
“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,” said Collins in another reaction statement after the meeting. “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,” he added, ending with a fourth (doubtless equally forlorn) request for Zuckerberg to appear in front of the DCMS Committee to “provide Facebook users the answers they deserve”.
In the latter stages of today’s EU parliament session several MEPs — clearly very exasperated by the straightjacked format — resorted to heckling Zuckerberg to press for answers he had not given them.
“Shadow profiles,” interjected one, seizing on a moment’s hesitation as Zuckerberg sifted his notes for the next talking point. “Compensation,” shouted another, earning a snort of laughter from the CEO and some more theatrical note flipping to buy himself time.
Then, appearing slightly flustered, Zuckerberg looked up at one of the hecklers and said he would engage with his question — about shadow profiles (though Zuckerberg dare not speak that name, of course, given he claims not to recognize it) — arguing Facebook needs to hold onto such data for security purposes.
Zuckerberg did not specify, as MEPs had asked him to, whether Facebook uses data about non-users for any purposes other than the security scenario he chose to flesh out (aka “keeping bad content out”, as he put it).
He also ignored a second follow-up pressing him on how non-users can “stop that data being transferred”.
“On the security side we think it’s important to keep it to protect people in our community,” Zuckerberg said curtly, before turning to his lawyer for a talking point prompt (couched as an ask if there are “any other themes we wanted to get through”).
His lawyer hissed to steer the conversation back to Cambridge Analytica — to Facebook’s well-trodden PR about how they’re “locking down the platform” to stop any future data heists — and the Zuckbot was immediately back in action regurgitating his now well-practiced crisis PR around the scandal.
What was very clearly demonstrated during today’s session was the Facebook founder’s preference for control — that’s to say control which he is exercising.
Hence the fixed format of the meeting, which had been negotiated prior to Facebook agreeing to meet with EU politicians, and which clearly favored the company by allowing no formal opportunity for follow ups from MEPs.
Zuckerberg also tried several times to wrap up the meeting — by insinuating and then announcing time was up. MEPs ignored these attempts, and Zuckerberg seemed most uncomfortable at not having his orders instantly carried out.
Instead he had to sit and watch a micro negotiation between the EU parliament’s president and the political groups over whether they would accept written answers to all their specific questions from Facebook — before he was publicly put on the spot by president Antonio Tajani to agree to provide the answers in writing.
Although, as Collins has already warned MEPs, Facebook has had plenty of practice at generating wordy but empty responses to politicians’ questions about its business processes — responses which evade the spirit and specifics of what’s being asked.
The self-control on show from Zuckerberg today is certainly not the kind of guardrails that European politicians increasingly believe social media needs. Self-regulation, observed several MEPs to Zuckerberg’s face, hasn’t worked out so well has it?
The first MEP to lay out his questions warned Zuckerberg that apologizing is not enough. Another pointed out he’s been on a contrition tour for about 15 years now.
Facebook needs to make a “legal and moral commitment” to the EU’s fundamental values, he was told by Moraes. “Remember that you’re here in the European Union where we created GDPR so we ask you to make a legal and moral commitment, if you can, to uphold EU data protection law, to think about ePrivacy, to protect the privacy of European users and the many millions of European citizens and non-Facebook users as well,” said the Libe committee chair.
But self-regulation — or, the next best thing in Zuckerberg’s eyes: ‘Facebook-shaped regulation’ — was what he had come to advocate for, picking up on the MEPs’ regulation “theme” to respond with the same line he fed to Congress: “I don’t think the question here is whether or not there should be regulation. I think the question is what is the right regulation.”
“The Internet is becoming increasingly important in people’s lives. Some sort of regulation is important and inevitable. And the important thing is to get this right,” he continued. “To make sure that we have regulatory frameworks that help protect people, that are flexible so that they allow for innovation, that don’t inadvertently prevent new technologies like AI from being able to develop.”
He even brought up startups — claiming ‘bad regulation’ (I paraphrase) could present a barrier to the rise of future dormroom Zuckerbergs.
Of course he failed to mention how his own dominant platform is the attention-sapping, app gobbling elephant in the room crowding out the next generation of would-be entrepreneurs. But MEPs’ concerns about competition were clear.
Instead of making friends and influencing people in Brussels, Zuckerberg looks to have delivered less than if he’d stayed away — angering and alienating the very people whose job it will be to amend the EU legislation that’s coming down the pipe for his platform.
Ironically one of the few specific questions Zuckerberg chose to answer was a false claim by MEP Nigel Farage — who had wondered whether Facebook is still a “neutral political platform”, griping about drops in engagement for rightwing entities ever since Facebook’s algorithmic changes in January, before claiming, erroneously, that Facebook does not disclose the names of the third party fact checkers it uses to help it police fake news.
So — significantly, and as was also evident in the US Senate and Congress — Facebook was taking flak from both left and right of political spectrum, implying broad, cross-party support for regulating these algorithmic platforms.
Actually Facebook does disclose those fact checking partnerships. But it’s pretty telling that Zuckerberg chose to expend some of his oh-so-slender speaking time to debunk something that really didn’t merit the breath.
Farage had also claimed, during his three minutes, that without “Facebook and other forms of social media there is no way that Brexit or Trump or the Italian elections could ever possibly have happened”.
Funnily enough Zuckerberg didn’t make time to comment on that.