Mark Zuckerberg’s appearance before European Parliament yields an empty spectacle

Mark Zuckerberg's appearance before the European Parliament today was designed to give members the opportunity to ask the CEO of Facebook about urgent matters involving data privacy, terrorist content, misinformation and monopoly power, among other issues. In the course of an hour, Zuckerberg faced sharp questions on each of those topics. But the format of the audience allowed only a few minutes to answer dozens of complex questions. By the time the hearing was over, he had only offered some high-level responses that were largely recycled from his previous appearances before Congress.

The result, for anyone who has paid attention to the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, was a strong sense of déjà vu. In response to questions about data privacy, Zuckerberg said Facebook was reviewing thousands of applications that once had broad access to user information, and the process would take months to complete. Terrorism? Almost all messages promoting al-Qaeda and ISIS are automatically deleted through systems with machine learning technology. Disinformation? Facebook is working to eliminate the economic incentives for the publication of false news, which is addressed to the majority of the people who publish it. And the power of monopoly? The average person uses eight different applications to communicate, Zuckerberg said, not noticing, as usual, that Facebook owns three of them.

It was an anticlimactic response to an avalanche of questions from members of the European Parliament (MEP), who had clearly seen Zuckerberg's appearances on Capitol Hill and tried to delve into some of the most pressing questions about the company. Guy Verhofstadt, who may have been the harshest interlocutor Zuckerberg faced today, likened the CEO to a character in Dave Eggers' The Silly Valley satirical novel The Circle and suggested that Zuckerberg unfavorably compared predecessors like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.

"You have to ask yourself how you will be remembered," said Verhofstadt, president of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe. "As one of the three great Internet giants along with Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, who have enriched our world and our societies, or on the other hand, the genius that created a digital monster that is destroying our democracies and societies." [19659006] Meanwhile, MEP Manfred Weber said European regulators should consider whether Facebook should be divided into a series of smaller companies. "I think it's time to discuss the break-up of Facebook's monopoly because it's already too much power in one hand," Weber said. "So I just ask you, and that's my last question: can you convince me not to do it?"

In response, Zuckerberg said the company had only about 6 percent of the global advertising market, and said that people communicate about a wide range of services, forcing Facebook to adapt continuously.

Members' questions took almost 75 full minutes assigned to the audience, whose format was designed by the president of Parliament, Antonio Tajani. Zuckerberg's answers were more than 15 minutes past the hearing, when he stopped and said that the company would follow up with a second more technical presentation of one of his attachments and individual answers to any question that has not answered . 19659009] That provoked howls of protest from Verhofstadt and a handful of other Members of the European Parliament, who asked Tajani to extend the audience. But Tajani declined, Zuckerberg left, and the crowd dispersed. Later, Verhofstadt called the format of the hearing "inappropriate".

Public hearings with CEOs plagued by scandals often produce shows like these. Lawmakers are tough, executives come to offer words of contrition and the public feels that significant steps have been taken. Zuckerberg's initial resistance to appearing in person before the European Parliament could be partly explained by the fact that he had already endured two such events, seemingly ineffective beyond the gradual extinction of the Cambridge Analytica headlines.

The appearance of Zuckerberg before the Parliament was equally soporific. And it was similar to his appearances before Congress in another way, too: there is little agreement among lawmakers on what the problem with Facebook is really . Is it a small part of Facebook's response to the Cambridge Analytica data scandal? Is it a broader problem about how social networks disseminate misinformation and extremism? Or is it a global problem that a company is simply becoming too powerful? Both inside and outside, lawmakers have struggled to reach consensus even on the scope of their investigation.

And if they decided to address all three issues at the same time, they would still have difficulty designing legislation that manages to address the details (which does not mean that no one should try). But the cacophony of questions from Parliament today – and the built-in escape hatch that allowed Zuckerberg to skid after a brief response – suggest that nothing will be done soon.