Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg addressed legislators at the European Parliament in an hour and a half long discussion. The event which was followed closely by both tech and political circles turned out to be a bit of a damp squib despite a set of strong questions put forth by the MEPs (Members of European Parliament). Unlike the US Congressional hearings which had a much softer line of questioning, Zuckerberg was only required to answer the questions he chose to because of time constraints. Zuckerberg mostly chose to stick to the canned responses he had used in the US Congress while adding a few insights about the changes Facebook has made to the platform in the recent past.
Here are the most notable stories emerging from the EU discussion:
Question, Question, Question, Answer and goodbye
The biggest flaw in the entire process was the format of the proceedings. The European lawmakers were all allowed to ask their questions in one go, this process took up an hour and Zuckerberg only had less than half an hour to respond to all those questions. More egregious is the fact that there was no cross-questioning everytime the Facebook CEO failed to adequately respond to a query. The parliamentarians asked 40 questions in total (Gizmodo has a comprehensive list) and Zuckerberg mostly ignored the tough questions pertaining to anti-trust and data sharing. TechCrunch reports that this generally is the standard format followed by the EU.
Zuckerberg tried to wrap things up at the end promising to get back to everyone with written replies, this drew vocal criticism from various MEPs. Philippe Lamberts an MEP from Belgium said, “I asked you a few simple Yes/No questions and did not get a clear response on a single one of them.” But the European Parliament President Antonio Tajani stepped in saying that they are out of time and Zuckerberg will get back to them with written replies.
Silence on WhatsApp
Unlike the United States, WhatsApp is a popular mode of communication in Europe. Therefore there were understandable concerns about how Facebook handles data from the popular messaging app. Unlike other questions where he made clumsy attempts to answer with canned responses, we did not hear a word on WhatsApp. One of the most direct questions on this issue was from German MEP Jan Philipp Albrecht who asked, “Can you promise that the data of European users will not be used or exchanged between the WhatsApp and Facebook services?” This drew no response from Zuckerberg. The Facebook CEO’s sheepishness on WhatsApp is concerning especially when one takes into account the recent exit of WhatsApp founder Jan Koum on concerns regarding user privacy.
Dodgy answers on the question of monopoly
Some of the strongest questions were around the issue of Facebook’s monopoly which Zuckerberg tried hard to side step with canned replies. Belgian MEP, Guy Verhofstadt was particularly brutal in skewering Zuckerberg’s previous response on the issue of monopoly where he had named Apple and Google as competitors. Verhofstadt pointed out that’s like a car manufacturer saying, “We don’t have a monopoly because you can take a train or a plane!”
Zuckerberg said the company held only about 6% of the global advertising market. This ignores the fact that Facebook receives 18% of all ad-spend on the web. The only company that is bigger is Google at 44%. Zuckerberg also repeated a statement he had made in the US Congress where he said, “We exist in a very competitive space where people use a lot of different tools for communication. The average person uses eight different tools to communicate with others.” But Guardian’s live blog was quick to point out that Facebook owns 4 of those 8 popular tools (Facebook, Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp) and a number of them are legacy technology like (email, phone calls, SMS).