On Tuesday, just three days before strict new data privacy laws go into effect in Europe, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified before members of the European Parliament in Brussels, where he faced a barrage of questions about a broad range of issues, including user data protection, hate speech, bullying, and partisan bias. But the hearing, which followed an odd format in which Zuckerberg reserved his answers until all of the members’ questions had been asked, devolved into chaos, as Zuckerberg sped through his responses and promised to follow up later with details.
The 90-minute hearing stood in stark contrast to the nearly 10 hours of questioning Zuckerberg withstood on Capitol Hill last month. Members of the European Parliament instead held a shotgun round of questioning, skewering Zuckerberg about Facebook’s mishandling of user data, its handling of hate speech and cyberbullying, the creation of so-called “shadow profiles” about non-users, and its readiness for the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, which will be implemented Friday. One member in particular asked Zuckerberg whether he’d like to be remembered as “the genius who created a digital monster that’s destroying our democracies and societies.”
The questions mirrored the ones asked by members of the House and Senate, but before Parliament, Zuckerberg was able to selectively lump his answers together, while glossing over the less flattering specifics about how Facebook polices its platform. As the meeting ended, the members began shouting out of turn, demanding answers regarding, among other things, whether data gets cross-polinated between Facebook and its other apps like WhatsApp, and why Facebook collects data about people who aren’t even its users.
“I asked you six yes or no questions. I got not a single answer,” complained one member, as Zuckerberg wrapped up, having skipped over one specifically pointed question about whether Facebook might make it possible for users to opt out of all targeted advertising. “Of course, you asked for this format for a reason,” the member said, angrily.
Zuckerberg committed to answer each of the questions in writing following the hearing, answers that will be increasingly important under GDPR regulations, which give EU residents more control over how their data is used and collected, and require businesses to get opt-in consent from users about data collection. Zuckerberg said that Facebook is already prepared to comply with these regulations in Europe, and has previously said that many of the new controls it’s implementing will be available around the world.
And yet, on Tuesday, Zuckerberg skipped over a question posed by one member about reports that Facebook has tweaked language in its terms of service. The wonky change ultimately shifts responsibility for international users from Facebook’s offices in Ireland to its headquarters in California. This edit means the 1.5 billion users who don’t live in the EU won’t be subject to GDPR protections.
Though Zuckerberg was short on answers, what became immediately clear from the members’ line of questioning is that European regulators have a far more aggressive appetite for regulating both speech and technology than their American counterparts. Whereas the US has longstanding laws like Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects platforms like Facebook from being held liable for what their users do and post, countries like Germany, France, and the United Kingdom have even longer standing laws that prohibit incitement to racial hatred. In Germany, that’s translated to new laws that penalize companies like Facebook that fail to quickly remove online hate speech. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom’s Data Protection Act has afforded citizens the ability to request their data from companies and ask that it be corrected or deleted.
While some bills have been introduced in the United States, Congress has shown little interest in actually implementing them, wary of trampling on users’ rights to free speech. But, as became clear during Tuesday’s hearing, European countries don’t view those rights in absolute terms. “I want to underline that between Europe and America we have different understandings about what is allowed to publish and what is not allowed,” one member said. “I think we should clearly regulate clear rules about what is allowed on social networks in Europe.”
Such heavy-handed regulation is just the sort of thing Zuckerberg is hoping to fend off as he launches his international charm offensive. But if his goal is to engender trust in Facebook among increasingly hostile regulators, Tuesday’s hearing, which left members feeling angry and betrayed, may have only backfired.