European lawmakers pilloried Mark Zuckerberg at a hearing Tuesday for Facebook’s recent privacy and misinformation mishaps and raised the possibility of new regulation, a more realistic threat than what the social media giant faces in the United States.
The tough questions from political leaders in European Parliament reflected growing unease in Brussels about Facebook’s ability to protect its users’ personal information and combat fake news, terrorist propaganda and other malicious content on its platform. At one point, policymakers told Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, that the company had become so large, powerful and out of control that it should be investigated and broken up.
Opening the meeting, the president of European Parliament, Antonio Tajani, described as an “alarming scandal” that Facebook had allowed Cambridge Analytica, a political consultancy, to access the names, “likes” and other personal information for 87 million of the site’s users.
“The price paid by the users is, in many cases, data in exchange for free services,” Tajani said. “However, democracy should never become a marketing operation where anyone who buys that data buys a political advantage.”
In response, Zuckerberg apologized to European lawmakers, much as he had done during his testimony to the U.S. Congress during two hearings in April. “We didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibility, and that was a mistake. And I’m sorry for it,” he said.
But some European policymakers did not appear to be swayed by Zuckerberg’s entreaties. One member of Parliament, Guy Verhofstadt, lamented that Facebook already had apologized for its missteps “fifteen or sixteen times the last decade.”
Zuckerberg’s faceoff with Parliament marked his toughest confrontation with regulators to date. European lawmakers hammered the executive with more incisive questions than during his congressional hearings last month.
By design, though, Zuckerberg answered all of lawmakers’ questions at once at the end of the hearing. That setup appeared to irk many lawmakers, who felt it afforded Zuckerberg an opportunity to dodge their toughest queries. In one of the more uncomfortable moments of the day, Zuckerberg avoided a question about the company’s use of so-called “shadow profiles,” or information Facebook collects about those who aren’t actually users of its site.
As a result, Tajani said, lawmakers would press the Facebook chief executive to address follow-ups in writing soon. The European Parliament also plans to convene another hearing, with Facebook and fellow tech companies, to discuss more technical issues.