Was Facebook chief Mark Zuckerbergs long-awaited Brussels hearing a key moment for European tech regulation — or a missed opportunity?
Billed as a showdown between the 34-year-old CEO and the European Union lawmakers who drew up the worlds most stringent privacy rules, it has been widely criticized for its soft format, which allowed Zuckerberg to dodge the most difficult questions.
POLITICO asked four politicians and policy experts for their take on the hearing.
A missed opportunity
Alexander De Croo is Belgiums deputy prime minister and minister for digital affairs.
Yesterdays hearing was clearly a missed opportunity, an embarrassment for the European Parliament and the European public. The format was flawed, and we should expect more from a president of the European Parliament than yesterdays performance.
If Zuckerberg and Facebook do not get their act together soon, Europe will act.
Why did the European Parliament accept this kind of setting? It was clearly in favor of Zuckerberg, who was given an opportunity to tick another box but failed to give us the answers we Europeans deserve. Why did Facebook wait three years to inform its users about the massive data breach? How will they compensate their users? What does Facebook do with the data that have been leaked and that are out there?
We need transparent and responsible platforms, not monopolistic moguls. Zuckerberg is still acting like the leader of a private superpower who believes he cannot be held accountable. After his performance in the Parliament, it is clear that Zuckerberg and his team at Facebook are still missing the point.
This does not mean I am not hopeful. I was positively surprised by the interventions of different European lawmakers. Their questions were more pertinent than those of their U.S. counterparts in last month. But for me it is clear: If Zuckerberg and Facebook do not get their act together soon, Europe will act.
Europe has always been a leader in breaking up monopolies. European lawmakers and the European Commission have to ask itself whether Facebook is not getting too big and should be broken up.
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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg shakes hands with European Parliament President Antonio Tajani | Stephanie Lecocq/EPA
An important step
Věra Jourová is European commissioner for justice, consumers and gender equality.
I am glad Mark Zuckerberg came to Europe. Millions of Europeans are on Facebook every day, and almost 3 million were affected by the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Trust has been diminished, and they deserved to hear from Zuckerberg directly.
The European Parliament hearing was an important step toward restoring that trust. But we need more.
I expect Facebook to fully answer the questions asked by MEPs. We need to be absolutely sure that Facebook will do everything it can to prevent data breaches of this magnitude from happening again.
I hope that changes currently in the works — including on the transparency of electoral advertising — are signs that Facebook will assume more responsibility. I will also continue to follow closely the ongoing investigations by both EU and U.S. authorities.
The recent scandal confirms that we are doing the right thing in Europe by implementing strong new EU data protection rules.
The recent scandal confirms that we are doing the right thing in Europe by implementing strong new EU data protection rules. These rules, which come into effect Friday, will not only better protect European citizens but our democracies and free elections.
This aspect will be crucial as we prepare for the European Parliament election next year. We need to work together to create more transparency for online political advertising and to ensure rules are up to date with modern political campaigns in the digital era. Maintaining dialogue with Facebook — and ensuring it complies with our regulations — is essential.
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A yawning gap between policy and people
William Echikson, a former senior policy manager at Google, is head of the Digital Forum at the Centre for European Policy Studies.
Mark Zuckerbergs hearing underlined a huge gap between policymakers and European internet users. MEPs pontificated and fumed against what they call a “digital monster.” The Facebook chief had little time to respond and avoided answering many questions. Facebook users for the most part ignored the show and kept on clicking on their news feeds.
During my time at Google, I lived through this yawning gap between policy and people. Politicians crucified the search giant. Consumers kept on clicking on Google. The companys European business flourished.
Although MEPs can huff and puff, their verbal attacks will count for little as long as users find Facebook useful.
Consider a specific product: Street View, which shows panoramic views along streets. German privacy zealots forced Google to gain permission from property owners before filming the front of their buildings. Google complied in a few German cities — and the number of clicks on Google Maps in these cities soared. But the regulatory hurdle forced Google to stop rolling out Street View and most of Germany remains without the useful and popular tool.
Facebook faces a similar situation. Regulatory pressure is mounting. Users so far are ignoring it.
Although MEPs can huff and puff, their verbal attacks will count for little as long as users find Facebook useful. And few voters want their politicians to take away their free Facebook pages.
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Time for real action
Jan Philipp Albrecht is spokesman for digital, internal affairs and justice policy for the Green Group in the European Parliament.
The European Parliaments meeting with Mark Zuckerberg was disappointing. The Facebook CEO missed his chance to rebuild trust of European citizens. The choice of format allowed him to avoid answering the most concrete questions, and had the Greens not insisted on it, there would not even have been a public live stream of the hearing.
Nonetheless, there is a silver lining. Parliament learned that simply holding a discussion with Facebook is not enough to ensure the individual rights of European citizens and guarantee a fair market. What we need instead is to increase oversight and regulation of Facebook, including via all instruments of European competition policy.