Key takeaways from Mark Zuckerberg’s European Parliament inquisition

Photographer: LDI - DBA - DHO / © European Union 2018 - Source : EP

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg continued his atonement tour yesterday (May 22) with its latest stop-off at the European Parliament where he faced (at times heated) questions from members of the Brussels-based assembly. The Drum highlights pertinent talking points for media observers.

Under continued public scrutiny given the revelations over foreign interference in elections, fake news, and the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, faced his interrogators in the European Parliament yesterday (May 22).

Zuckerberg remains resilient under (sometimes) terse questioning from MEPs

Some had hoped the extent of the upcoming General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) in the European Union (EU) would be a harbinger of Zuckerberg receiving a more testing time than his earlier Congressional appearances in the US. Although ultimately, these hopes were not met.

Critics, including the assorted elected representatives, argued that Zuckerberg’s testimony consisted of hackneyed stock answers that have formed his long and varied ‘mea culpa’ since the extent of the Cambridge Analytica hack first emerged in March.

This included the regurgitation of recent measures including limiting access to Facebook user data to third parties. “Let me be clear, keeping people safe, will always be more important than maximizing profits,” Zuckerberg told attendees.

Despite some tense moments, Zuckerberg emerged largely unscathed, with the Silicon Valley titan resorting to some familiar tactics under questioning from Members of the European Parliament (MEP), with Facebook now set to return answers in writing.

Among the ongoing concerns include queries over the separation over Facebook’s different services, such as Instagram and WhatsApp, plus “shadow profiles”, with Zuckerberg promising to provide written responses in the coming days. Although this response was not met with universal acceptance (see Tweet above).

“Will you allow users to escape targeted advertising?” pressed one MEP. “I asked you six ‘yes or no’ questions and I got not a single answer, and of course, you well asked for this format for a reason.”

Some politicians claim they are feeling the pain almost as much as publishers over Facebook’s algorithm update

Some MEPs went on to highlight the differing social attitudes towards freedom of expression between the US and EU, but it was UK MEP and arch Brexit-er Nigel Farage who stole the show in this line of questioning, quizzing Zuckerberg on Facebook’s status as a “politically neutral platform”.

He specifically honed in on Facebook’s algorithm change dating back to January 2018, which demoted posts by businesses, brands and media outlets. The one-time UKiP leader and vocal Donald Trump supporter then went on to allege that the changes were politically motivated in the wake of the success of both electoral campaigns in 2016.

“What is absolutely true is that since January of this year you changed your modus operandi, you changed your algorithms and it has led directly to a very substantial drop in views and engagements for this that have got right of center political opinions,” he said.

Zuckerberg denied such allegations adding that Facebook remained unbiased and that it was a “platform for all ideas” adding that the algorithm change was specifically engineered to help surface content from friends and family in its users’ Newsfeed. “We made a number of changes this year to make sure that we’re showing people’s friends and family and community content more than public content in general,” he added.

Questions remain over ‘shadow profiles’

Some MEPs pressed Zuckerberg on “shadow profiles” whereby the social network is able to track users around the internet even if they are not a registered user on the social network with UK representative Syed Kamall asking Zuckerberg how non-users can stop the social network collecting their data.

“What do you do with this data, do you commercialize it? And if you do that is it morally acceptable?” he asked.

Zuckerberg responded by reminding attendees of its “clear history feature” but did confirm that such tracking was an activity it engaged in, albeit this was motivated by the need to protect the data of its registered users.

“It’s very important that we don’t have people who aren’t Facebook users coming to our service and trying to scrape the public data that’s available,” he said.

“So one of the ways that we do that is that with people who use our service even if they’re not signed in we need to understand how they are using the service to prevent bad activity.”

However, this response was likewise not met with some frustration with some alleging that he attempted to avoid such direct questions (see Tweet above).

Facebook is reminding politicians of its EU investment amid growing speculation of antitrust action

The growing public scrutiny of Facebook, as well as its ‘duopoly’ stablemate Google, comes amid growing speculation that the pair will be subject to more antitrust action, with some asserting that the upcoming GDPR laws were motivated by EU politicians seeking to disrupt their market dominance.

However, in his prepared remarks, Zuckerberg was keen to underline the extent of Facebook’s investment in the EU, including how its platform helps bring voters to the polling booths that may otherwise have abstained from the electoral process.

“I am determined to keep building tools that keep bringing people together in meaningful new ways while we work to address our safety and security challenges as well,” said Zuckerberg.

He then went on to reiterate the extent the job creation Facebook has generated across the EU’s member states, with the social network on course to employ a workforce of 10,000 in 12 European cities by the close of the year.

Zuckerberg later went on to underline how the UK housed Facebook’s biggest engineering team outside of the US, the extent of its artificial intelligence research in France, the data centers it houses in Ireland, Sweden, as well as a third offering planned for Denmark due to open in 2020.

“We will continue to invest in Europe in the years ahead, we’ve committed to providing 1 million people in small businesses with digital skills training by 2020,” he added.

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