The CEO of Facebook sat down before the European Parliament in Brussels on Tuesday to answer a few questions. Unlike his congressional testimony, the format did not allow for tense back-and-forths. Instead of responding to each legislators’ concerns, he waited until the questions were complete—about forty minutes worth—and responded to their “themes”.
Nonetheless, one Belgian politician, Guy Verhofstadt, decided to ride Zuckerberg like a beleaguered Seabiscuit. Never mind the fact that his questioning would have ultimately to end on an awkward note, as Zuck sat their silently, waiting for the next speaker to begin; this guy had his day in court, and was going to make the most of it.
Here’s 6 highlights of his speech, and what the grilling might signal about the future of Facebook in Europe and elsewhere:
Comparing Zuckerberg to a protagonist in Dave Egger’s dystopian novel The Circle, a book described as portraying a “techno-fascist image of mankind” by Der Spiegel. “Very near to reality,” Verhofstadt called the story—except that in this case, he said, Zuckerberg has “no control” over his own data empire.
Asking if he’s “capable to fix [Facebook]?” Verhofstadt compared Facebook to the big banks prior the ‘08 meltdown who promised to regulate themselves. “You’ve apologized three times already, and it’s only May,” he said, implying Facebook was becoming increasingly incapable of monitoring itself.
Suggesting he compensate users. Verhofstadt asked that Facebook consider remunerating users for violating their privacy. “I’m worth $186,” he said (obviously having viewed his page’s worth, which you can also do here) “though some of my opponents may think less.”
Telling Zuckerberg he isn’t convincing anyone Facebook isn’t a monopoly. Earlier in the session, Zuckerberg had been asked to explain why Facebook is not—as he insists—a monopoly. Before he had the chance to do so, however, Verhofstadt called such claims “nonsense.” Referencing the CEO’s contention that Facebook competes with the likes of Twitter and Google, Verhofstadt said that was like having a monopoly on planes and denying it on the grounds that “you can take your bike” instead.
Asking if Facebook would be willing to get rid of Messenger. In a hypothetical, Verhofstadt questioned whether Facebook would accept breaking up—say, losing Messenger and WhatsApp—in order to avoid antitrust regulation. “[Is that] a good deal for you?” he asked. Zuckerberg never responded to the inquiry.
Telling Zuckerberg he’s either Steve Jobs or an evil genius . Verhofstadt climaxed on a moral note, asking Zuckerberg to think about his legacy. Will he be remembered, he suggested, as someone like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, men who added something to society, or rather, he continued “a genius who created a digital monster that is destroying our democracies and our societies?” Zuckerberg responded by staring blankly for a couple seconds as the hall sat in silence.
Regulating What They “Don’t Understand”
In addition to the moral hand-wringing, the idea of regulation was brought up ceaselessly. Facebook, who until recently had always insisted on self-regulation, appears on thin ice. The political will is there; question is really whether the European Parliament is capable of implementing the necessary rules. The GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) bill they passed in 2016—and set to go into effect this Friday—has been criticized for a “one-size-fits-all approach.” As a result, one insider told TheVerge, “few companies are going to be 100 percent compliant.” Not a great start to the implementation of sweeping rules.
Meanwhile, back in the U.S., conditions appear similar. While plenty of politicians promised regulation—Senator Bill Nelson told Zuckerberg that if he “cannot fix these privacy violations, we will”—few seem familiar with how social media works. As a WaPo headline read, “Congress Can’t Possibly Regulate Facebook. They Don’t Understand It.”
Of course, congressional members are likely have young, able staff to draft up appropriate legislation. But both of these political bodies—in the EU and the US—have put themselves in a bind by reflecting popular outrage at Facebook while having little idea of just what to do about it. Much like the big banks Verhofstadt references, we want political control over their dangerous products like MBS’s, CDS’s and others, but don’t know how to appropriately exercise that control. In the case of banks, this has resulted in the US reverting back to the dangerous status quo as soon as outrage has subsided.
We’ll see if the same goes for Facebook, or not.