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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg begins European leg of apology tour

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg begins European leg of apology tour
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at the European Parliament. (EBS)

Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg kicked off the European leg of his contrition tour with an apology Tuesday at the European Parliament for the various controversies that have battered the social networking giant's reputation.

"We haven't done enough to prevent the tools we've built from being used for harm as well," Zuckerberg said in an opening statement. "Whether it's fake news, foreign interference in elections or developers misusing people's information, we didn't take a broad enough view of our responsibilities. That was a mistake, and I'm sorry."

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But rather than cool the hard feelings among politicians and regulators across Europe, Zuckerberg's arrival seems to have inflamed them. Since his three-day tour was announced last week, matters such as where he would appear, whether it would be public and the subjects to be discussed have triggered criticism.

That friction is a reminder that even as Facebook appears to have weathered the Cambridge Analytica scandal, at least on Wall Street, resentment against the company runs deep in Europe.

"You have to ask yourself how you will be remembered," Guy Verhofstadt, president of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, told Zuckerberg at the hearing. "As one of the three big internet giants together with Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, who have enriched our world and our socieites. Or on the other hand, as a genius who created a digital monster that is destroying our democracies and our societies."

Beyond political posturing and bruised egos, such heated words are also a measure of the daunting task that Zuckerberg faces in Europe, where the terrain is radically different from in the U.S.

The European Union and its 28 members have taken a far more aggressive posture toward regulating U.S. tech giants in recent years compared with their U.S. counterparts. Last year, for instance, the European Commission antitrust regulator fined Facebook $130 million for what it labeled as misleading statements about the handling of personal data when it was seeking approval of its WhatsApp acquisition.

"In general, Europeans are more willing to take action against dominant firms who abuse their power than the U.S.," said Alexandre de Cornière, an assistant professor at the Toulouse Scool of Economics in France. "Of course, there are also political economy considerations. It's easier to score political points by tackling U.S. giant firms than European ones."

Zuckerberg's tour this week coincides with the May 25 start date for a set of European Union privacy regulations known as the General Data Protection Regime (or GDPR), which imposes new rules on data control, transparency and accountability and include stiff fines.

In response to questions, Zuckerberg said his company would make many of the personal data mangement tools it had created to comply with the GDPR available to users around the world. But he didn't respond directly to questions about whether Facebook would comply with the rules globally.

The GDPR grew out of the more fundamental worries Europeans have about the use of their personal data and was compounded by concerns over the way U.S. tech giants leverage those data for commercial purposes. Wojciech Wiewiórowsk, an assistant supervisor at the European Data Protection Supervisor, noted that his and other agencies had concerns about the way third-party apps harvested data long before the controversy over Cambridge Analytica, which was accused of misusing customer information obtained from an academic researcher for work on President Trump's campaign.

"If you think about the case itself, it's not that surprising," Wiewiórowsk said. "There already were many people out there explaining how all this worked. We were quite aware of how data collected for scientific research is transferred to entities that use it for a completely different purpose."

The EU is considering sweeping reforms requiring more transparency from platforms including Facebook, such as disclosing how their algorithms work, to level the playing field between giant tech companies and small businesses. And as with many tech companies, there are concerns here that Facebook may be using its European operations to lower its tax bills.

Facebook also finds itself facing greater pressure from European regulators to more quickly identify and remove inappropriate content such as hate speech and to do more to combat fake news. Amid widespread fears that Facebook could be used to manipulate elections, the company has taken aggressive steps to police such content, and even banned foreign groups from buying ads to influence an upcoming Irish referendum on abortion.

For many, the hearing served as a reminder that Europe's electoral integrity has become dependent on the policies of powerful tech companies based far away in Silicon Valley.

"Politicians are just not able to get a grip on election rules being circumvented," said Joe McNamee, president of European Digital Rights, an association of privacy groups. "Ultimately they rely on Silicon Valley companies to decide the rules of an Irish referendum."

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Like many Silicon Valley companies, Facebook has been focusing more time and effort on wooing European regulators. Facebook last year increased its lobbying expenditures to $1.2 million in Brussels, up from $470,000 in 2016. That is a recognition of the potential effect of EU regulations, though still tiny compared with the $11.5 million it spent lobbying the U.S. government in 2017.

Facebook has also been highlighting its economic effect on Europe. During the hearing, Zuckerberg reminded politicians that beyond its European headquarters in Ireland, it has a sizable engineering team in London, an artificial intelligence lab in Paris and several data centers scattered around the continent. And in a region starved for good tech jobs, Facebook plans to hire an additional 3,000 employees in Europe by the end of this year.

"Europeans make up a large and incredibly important part of our global community," Zuckerberg said. "Many of the values Europeans care most deeply about are values we share."

But as Zuckerberg witnessed this last week, the battle for Europeans' hearts and minds can quickly turn into trench warfare.

Across the political spectrum, regulators and elected officials were infuriated that Zuckerberg's appearance at the European Parliament was going to be private. After several days of controversy, Facebook agreed to let the session be livestreamed. Yet that didn't ease a larger concern that Zuckerberg had agreed to appear before a committee of party leaders rather than a committee that has more specialized knowledge of digital issues.

British lawmakers, who have requested that Zuckerberg appear before a British Parliament committee investigating the Cambridge Analytica scandal, felt snubbed that he opted instead to visit the European Parliament. Member of Parliament Damian Collins wrote a letter to Facebook this week and forwarded a list of 50 questions to European Parliament members, hoping they would include them in their grilling of Zuckerberg.

"If Facebook truly recognizes the 'seriousness' of these issues as it says it does, we would expect that Mark Zuckerberg would want to appear in front of the Committee and answer questions that are of concern not only to the U.K. Parliament, but Facebook's tens of millions of users in this country," Collins wrote in his letter.

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It remains to be seen whether Zuckerberg will get a friendlier reception when he meets with French President Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday, or when he is interviewed live on stage at the Viva Technology conference in Paris.

Aids to Macron have promised that the president will raise sensitive issues with Zuckerberg. But at the same time the president has long been a start-up cheerleader and is actively trying to lure more tech companies to France.

O'Brien is a special correspondent.

UPDATES:

4:25 p.m.: This article was written by a special correspondent.

This article was originally published at 11 a.m.

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