Mark Zuckerberg may have walked into his testimony in Brussels before European lawmakers today with a script full of contrition, but as it turns out, he didn’t have to answer for any of his company’s numerous misdeeds.
Initially, it appeared that European parliamentary members were set to pepper Zuckerberg with a far sharper line of questioning than that of their American counterparts. But it quickly became clear that the format of the session—each member asked his or her questions first, and Zuckerberg responded collectively at the end—simply provided the Facebook CEO with ample cover to avoid answering the toughest queries.
Zuckerberg alluded to this himself toward the end of his responses, noting, for good measure, that he had also gone 15 minutes over his allotted time. “I think I was able to address the high-level areas of each,” he said. In other words: I’m not going to address any specific questions, so here are a bunch of Facebook talking points instead.
Zuckerberg’s dodge was made even worse by the fact that many of the questions were thoughtful and pointed.
There was the odd head-scratcher (hello, Nigel Farage, taking a page out of Ted Cruz’s book by asking about alleged biases against right-wing opinion). But there were also questions about Facebook’s status as a monopoly; whether Zuckerberg could guarantee another Cambridge Analytica scandal wouldn’t happen in six months; collecting data on non-Facebook users; if Zuckerberg would be remembered as a monster or a force for good; why, if Facebook is committed to transparency, was the session initially closed to the public; whether the company can truly support women given that it was formed as a “hot or not” site; and what kind of data-sharing, if any, would happen between Facebook and WhatsApp.
Zuckerberg, outfitted in a suit and a dark purple tie, rattled off a list of bullet points that should be familiar by now. He mentioned political bias, and noted that staying neutral was “an important philosophical point to me.” He claimed that much of what constitutes fake news is motivated not by politics, but by money, a point that, at the very least, distracts from Facebook’s role in creating our current political wasteland. He said that “some sort of regulation is inevitable and important.” He asserted that the company would comply with Europe’s new GDPR guidelines by May 25.
By the end, even the lawmakers were frustrated with the proceedings. “I asked you six yes or no questions, I got not a single answer,” one fumed, adding, “you asked for this format, well, for a reason.” In a brief question-and-answer session with reporters afterward, Antonio Tajani, the parliamentary president, claimed it was “the conference of presidents who decided” on the format. He appeared frustrated with the criticism, noting that “this is not an obligatory hearing” and “the time available was what was available to us.” He also pointed to Zuckerberg’s promise that the company would soon respond to specific questions with written answers, a tactic Zuckerberg also relied on during his congressional testimony in April. (We’ve reached out to Facebook for clarification on who requested this particular format, and we’ll update if we hear back.)
Zuckerberg’s jaunt to Brussels is the latest stop on his Big Apology Tour, but it seems clear that, coupled with his earlier appearance before congress, he hasn’t yet been made to truly answer for Facebook’s misdeeds. (In a sign of just how far he’s been able to move the goalposts, several European lawmakers thanked him profusely for even showing up at all.)
It’s especially disappointing when one considers that, historically, Europe has taken a more realistic view of Silicon Valley, which is to say it has tried to demand higher standards and greater accountability when it comes to data privacy and taxes, among other things. For today, at least, Zuckerberg has managed to once again slip by.