Mark Zuckerberg's EU parliament appearance leaves a lot of tough questions unanswered

Accusations started flying immediately post the EU hearing that Zuckerberg had chosen to answer questions which put him and Facebook in the best defensible position.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg appeared before the European Union Parliament to answer questions about the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal, terrorist content on Facebook, the spread of fake news, among many other pressing matters. In addition to apologising to the EU Parliament, Zuckerberg also mentioned that some form of regulation was inevitable.

Representational Image. AP

Representational Image. AP

But unlike the US Congressional hearings which went on for close to ten hours over two days, the EU Parliament hearing lasted for about 90 minutes, of which Zuckerberg spoke for about 30 minutes, responding to the questions asked of him. According to the format, Zuckerberg first heard all the questions consecutively for 60 minutes and then responded to some of them in the following 30 minutes — which was still 15 minutes over the stipulated 75-minute duration. This was completely different from the question followed by answer format of the US Congressional hearings.

Naturally, accusations started flying immediately post the EU hearing that Zuckerberg had chosen to answer questions which put him and Facebook in the best defensible position.

According to The Guardian, Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of the liberal group, claimed that the format was not appropriate and had allowed Zuckerberg to avoid answering a lot of questions. Zuckerberg on his part, however, assured the members of parliament that he would have his team get back to all questions that were asked with written responses. But there was no definite timeline given as to by when these written responses would be provided.

Same old responses

Zuckerberg gave the same old rote responses that we have heard so far. He assured that there would be no repeat of a Cambridge Analytica type data scandal in the future.

On the question of fake news, Zuckerberg said that the economic incentives, which gave rise to fake news Pages coming up on Facebook, were being removed. This according to Zuckerberg would prevent people from spreading fake news in the hope of making revenue through advertising on such pages.

On the question of Facebook's monopoly, Zuckerberg said that there was competition. "We exist in a very competitive space where people use a lot of different tools for communication. Now the average person uses about eight different tools for communications ranging from all sorts of private messaging or broadcast mediums to things where they are communicating with groups of people and friends at once. So, from where I sit, I feel that there are new competitors coming up every day. There are competitors that reach 10s and 100s of millions of people and we are constantly needing to evolve our service, in order to stay relevant and serve people well," defended Zuckerberg. Note how he did not name a single competitor but just gave a vague idea of the landscape that Facebook operated in, highlighting the fact that people 'had many choices'. He didn't mention that three among those apps were owned by Facebook itself — WhatsApp, Messenger, Instagram — two of which have over a billion users.

On being asked about the spread of terrorist content via the platform, Zuckerberg said that all posts promoting the al-Qaeda and ISIS were being pro-actively removed through systems with the use of AI and machine learning.

On the topic of regulation, Zuckerberg said, "I don't think the question should be whether or not there should be regulation, the question is what is the right regulation? Some sort of regulation is important and inevitable."

With the European data regulation — General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) — set to kick off from 25 May, Zuckerberg said that he expected Facebook to be compliant by 25 May. The GDPR regulation will give people in Europe the right over the use of their data online. It will ensure that companies obtain consent from the users to share their data with advertisers and those found breaking the rule can be fined up to €20 bn or 4 percent of their global revenue.

If you have been following Zuckerberg since the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal, he gave answers which we have already heard before. Barring the response on monopoly, there was nothing that was completely new.

Facebook. Reuters.

Facebook. Reuters.

Questions that weren't answered

The format of the hearing was quite strange, to be honest, and Zuckerberg took full advantage of it, by responding to only those questions which didn't leave him on a sticky wicket.

For instance, one lawmaker from Belgium, Philippe Lambert, pointedly told Zuckerberg that he had asked six questions with simple yes or no answers, but he hadn't got any responses. Another question that was not given any response to was to do with shadow profiles. Zuckerberg didn't respond to what Facebook does with data collected on users who are not on Facebook at all. He just gave some tripe on security before referring to his notes and asking if any other themes needed to be covered.

Gizmodo has listed down all the questions asked by the members of the EU parliament. And it is clear from Zuckerberg's responses that he left many of these unanswered. But one thing that came across was that the members of the EU Parliament were very well informed on Facebook and had very pointed questions. Of course, the format did not lead itself well to conclusive answers.

No desire to appear before UK commission

Zuckerberg has still not commented on whether he will appear before the UK's Commons Digital, Media and Sport committee.

In a letter to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Rebecca Stimson, Facebook's Head of Public Policy in the UK, said that "Zuckerberg has no plans to meet with the committee or travel to the UK at the present time", The Register reported on 15 May. Stimson's letter, however, did not dampen the desire of the committee to hear from Zuckerberg directly.

"Although Facebook says Zuckerberg has no plans to travel to the UK, we would also be open to taking his evidence by video link, if that would be the only way to do this during the period of our inquiry," said Chair of the Committee Damian Collins in response to Stimson's letter.

It comes across as Zuckerberg appeared before the EU Parliament as almost a formality, as many of the pressing questions still need answers. And as has always been the case, Zuckerberg will leave it to his team of experts to get back to the questions posed by the EU Parliament members. It does not look like Zuckerberg has anything new to say on the many matters and when he does, the answers seem rehearsed. Authorities will have to get used to having Facebook representatives answering their questions.

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