Why Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony to EU officials in Brussels was disappointing

Mark Zuckerberg was praised by the President of the European Parliament for allowing his testimony to EU officials to be live-streamed. And the fact that the CEO travelled to Europe to answer these questions should also be recognised, even if he has turned down multiple offers to speak to a UK parliamentary group.

But the session has left me with a mixed response.

The President of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani, meets with Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's CEO.
The President of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani, meets with Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO. Image: European Union 2018

On the one hand, the session was interesting to listen in to. The questions being asked were both provocative and challenging, and some of the responses Mr Zuckerberg offered were thorough. But he was not given enough time to respond to all of the questions, and the questions he did choose to answer felt to me to be more detailed repetitions of what he’s already said.

Some of the new points I picked up through watching the live-stream, appropriately on Facebook Live, was that Mr Zuckerberg promises his company will be “fully compliant” with the new GDPR rules that come into force across Europe on Friday.

He said: “We’re going even further to comply with these strong new rules, making these same new controls and settings available to people who use Facebook around the world,” not just those who use the site in Europe, it seems.

Mr Zuckerberg went onto describe a feature called ‘clear history’, which will work to a similar extend to clearing browser history or cache. He described deleting Facebook history as detrimental to the use of the site, but made the point that it would give users a choice.

Providing a choice seemed to me to be one of his main messages for his audience.

The other message was about his company’s progress in creating useful artificial intelligence.

The various points in which Mr Zuckerberg referred to AI really affirmed how important it is to him.

He boasted how artificial intelligence capabilities meant that Facebook could proactively flag about 99% of ISIS and Al-Qaeda content before human beings through existing community measures.

He added that Facebook has the “ability to employ tens of thousands of people to look over this content.”

On bullying, a subject that a number of officials asked Mr Zuckerberg on, he addressed the “unfortunate set of incidents” surrounding the number of self-harm or suicides taking place on Facebook Live when it was first introduced.

“We realised we needed to do a much better job of addressing that quickly, so we built AI tools to determine if someone was thinking about harm or suicide,” he said.

But apart from artificial intelligence, and the attempt to swoon officials with a spiel on GDPR compliance and hiring Europeans in a big hiring spree, there were points that he missed.

“Time limitations” were to blame, as the session was already overrunning by just fifteen minutes.

It seemed that the CEO focussed too heavily on promoting his company’s ‘amazing artificial intelligence’ to squeeze in even a quick response to some of the more, what I’d consider, challenging questions.

For me, a missed opportunity were the multiple questions on social media monopoly: Mr Zuckerberg was asked whether he’d consider breaking down his company to reduce his monopoly on users.

At the moment, Facebook is comprised of the site we all (most of us) know, whether it be through the website or mobile application. But Facebook operates two messaging platforms, Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, as well as picture and video sharing site Instagram.

Facebook has also been exploring messaging/networking tools for businesses to allow people to communicate within a work space – somehow the idea of bringing work to your private social media profile doesn’t seem a good one.

Understandably, some of the officials questioning Zuckerberg weren’t too pleased that he skipped over these; irritated further by the fact they will have to rely on a written response over the next couple of days.

It seems completely pointless to invite the CEO to Europe, to face questions from twelve officials, but only allocate an hour or so for the meeting in its entirety.

Mr Zuckerberg was given some time at the beginning of the session to make an opening statement, and then spent the best part of an hour listening to all the questions the 12 officials had. Some of the questions were brief, while others had minutes worth of attached context.

But with social media, fake news, GDPR, and internet regulation being a hot topic right now, I would have thought organisers would have allocated a lot more time.

While my expectations were met, they were already pretty low to begin with.