After his testimony in front of Congress, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been summoned by the European Parliament. Weeks after the invitation, Zuckerberg has now agreed to meet parliamentarians in a private session.
Initially, Italian European Parliament chairman Antonio Tajani reacted in a very polite, yet firm manner to Zuckerberg’s suggestion to send Facebook Vice President Joel Kaplan to testify in front of parliamentarians in Brussels, Belgium. The insistence of Zuckerberg’s presence is mostly for the purpose of political power play: if the U.S. Congress was able to receive the CEO, Europe will certainly not allow to be content with the second-best option. Parliamentary hearings in the European Parliament can draw just as large of an attendance as the ones on Capitol Hill if there a media interest. After all, there’s so much clickbait to be written, such as “Zuckerberg destroyed on privacy by X”!
Apart from those highlight zingers, there isn’t much point in Zuckerberg’s appearance in front of parliament in the first place. Many of the technical questions are impossible to answer for the CEO of such a large company, and questions regarding how Facebook even works, such as the one asked by Senator Orrin Hatch, might as well be Googled. In fact, the European Parliament can’t even decide which committee Zuckerberg would even testify in front of, with IMCO (Internal Market and Consumer Protection), LIBE (Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs) or ITRE (Industry, Research and Energy) likely to claim responsibility.
All in all, there is little to gain from a hearing, as the EU has already made up its mind on the issue of data privacy. The EU just recently adopted regulation 2016/679, known as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which will come into effect next month. GDPR deals with the export of personal user data outside of the EU, imposing strict rules of the use of data that can be processed, as well as the penalties if a company does not comply with the said rules. One of the EU’s babies is “the right to be forgotten.” Through the combination of Article 6 (1)(e) and Article 12 (b) of the directive 95/46/EC, the EU had included a milestone in online regulatory history, by stating that individuals have the right to have personal information removed from platforms such as Google, Twitter or Facebook, which was a step in the direction of the acceptance that people own their own data. However, these rules could likely be contrary to principles in other countries, such as the U.S, where it could be seen as freedom of speech on behalf of the person who uploads the information. Here is where it would go into the nitty-gritty: would the information that you worked in a strip club be your own personal data, and would that mean that you could sue a person who disseminates that fact after you filed for the “right to be forgotten”?
Facebook definitely has an answer to that, most notably that its promises to extend European-style data privacy regulations to all countries, wasn’t much of a promise at all. Zuckerberg had vowedearlier that European data protection rules would apply not only in Europe, but around. However, the social media network recently altered its legal wording, in order to have non-EU users governed by the services of Facebook US. This way, Facebook is escaping stringent GDPR data protection rules inside the European Union and its associated members.
This is unlikely to make EU-lawmakers content with the level of “cooperation” they expected, with “cooperation” meaning the unquestioned acceptance of privacy protection rules. This is likely to intensify during the debate of Facebook’s responsibilities during elections, such as the Irish referendum on the Eighth Amendment (the anti-abortion paragraph in the Irish constitution), and other national elections. In fact, lawmakers are increasingly suspicious of social media, as they believe that it has turned against them and towards populism. The populists, however, feel persecuted and censored as well. Zuckerberg’s hearing in Brussels certainly wouldn’t be a pleasant one.
It seems to be a mystery to politicians that ultimately, Facebook is a private company that shouldn’t require to be accountable to governments as to how it runs its business. If the terms of service that Facebook provides are abided by, then there isn’t much of a reason to believe that Zuckerberg has any other moral obligations to make us into better or more informed people. But of course, for regulators in the European Union, this voluntary relationship between the user and the platform would not merely reach far enough. This is best illustrated in the EU’s recent draft strategy on artificial intelligence, where a 14-page report about innovate technology is dedicated for two pages to the chances the technology can bring, and 12 pages to the risks to “European values”, social order, and other liabilities.
Through a matter of principle, Europe isn’t interested in the advantageous nature of technology, but of the many risks it brings. Politicians will not rest until every single aspect of social media is so stringently regulated that its business model will become unprofitable.
So Zuckerberg’s appearance is not going to be a publicly broadcasted display. The script however, writes itself regardless.
This article was first published by Values4Europe.
Pictures are Creative Commons.
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