Saturday

1st Oct 2022

EP in blame game on Zuckerberg meeting format

  • Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (r) with European Parliament president Antonio Tajani at last month's infamous meeting (Photo: European Parliament)

It may never become clear who was responsible for the heavily-criticised format of a European Parliament meeting with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg last month, as the main protagonists disagree over how it was decided.

The format of the 'hearing', held in Brussels on 22 May, allowed Zuckerberg to give only general or evasive answers about the data breach scandal involving Cambridge Analytica - after lengthy opening statements by MEPs left him with just over 20 minutes to reply.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

  • Liberal leader Guy Verhofstadt (r) had emailed Tajani saying that Zuckerberg should appear in Brussels 'under the same circumstances as he did on Capitol Hill'. (Photo: European Parliament)

Instead of a snappy ping-pong interrogation between witness and MEPs, the debate was held as 'exchange of views' – an often-used format in the EU parliament in which MEP after MEP holds a mini-speech.

Following the unsatisfactory hearing, which left many unanswered questions, MEPs from the centre-left, left, green, and liberal side of the parliament, complained about the format.

They called it "a farce", "pre-cooked", and failing to meet expectations.

EUobserver has tried to find out how the decision on the meeting's format was made.

Email exchanges seen by this website show that liberal and left-leaning political leaders had warned Tajani in advance.

They opposed the proposal by Tajani to invite Zuckerberg for a meeting of the so-called Conference of Presidents, which is where the leaders of the parliament's political groups meet.

"I continue to believe as I have already expressed to you in a previous meeting, that this is not the right format," liberal leader Guy Verhofstadt wrote to Tajani on 15 May.

"Mr Zuckerberg must appear in the European Parliament under the same circumstances as he did on Capitol Hill," said Verhofstadt, referring to the US senate and house of representatives.

There, Zuckerberg received easier questions, but the format was more adversarial, allowing immediate follow-up questions. It was also much longer.

In the 15 May email, Verhofstadt said that Zuckerberg should appear in front of the parliament's civil liberties committee (LIBE) in a public hearing.

At the time, Tajani had only proposed a Conference of Presidents meeting behind closed doors.

The leader of the left-wing GUE/NGL, Gabi Zimmer, wrote the next day her group supported Verhofstadt's position, and said that the CoP was "not at all the adequate framework as it will not satisfy the need for information of our citizens".

The centre-left S&D and the Greens also agreed.

The decision about the Zuckerberg invitation – following the Facebook CEO's initial rejection to appear at all – was made on 16 May through a written procedure.

It merely said that Zuckerberg would "be invited to answer questions at an extraordinary meeting of the Conference of Presidents".

An explanatory remark attached to the draft version of Tajani's proposal did say that MEPs would have "the possibility of a follow-up question".

The written decision to have Zuckerberg in the CoP was supported by a slim centre-right and right-wing majority.

A public livestream of the event was then later added as a compromise.

But the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group said it was unfair to suggest that the groups supporting Tajani wanted a meeting behind closed doors.

A spokesman for the ECR told EUobserver that his group was under the impression that Facebook would not have accepted Zuckerberg appearing in front of the LIBE committee.

"It was this or nothing," he said. "This is the deal or no deal."

Tajani's spokesman said that a majority of the parliament supported the meeting in the CoP, and that the CoP just happened to be held in the 'exchange of views' format.

"The Conference of Presidents does not work with the ping-pong [method]," he said.

He noted that Tajani received a request for a more "dynamic format" from the Green group, "at the last minute".

A spokeswoman for the Greens said that the request came earlier, four hours before the scheduled start of the Zuckerberg meeting.

She said the Greens had sent Tajani's cabinet a message saying that there was a majority for the model in which Zuckerberg answered immediately after each speaker.

The Tajani spokesman said that the president would not have been against a ping-pong method, but stressed that political leaders spoke too long for it to work.

Indeed, twelve MEPs spoke in a row, for 45 minutes, before finally handing the floor to Zuckerberg to answer them, in just 26 minutes.

This article was rewritten on Monday 11 June after EUobserver received new information. Initially, this website wrote that no MEPs had raised any objections, based on a response from the European Parliament's transparency unit. EUobserver had asked for the minutes of the Conference of Presidents meeting in which the format of the Zuckerberg hearing "was decided". In response, the transparency unit referred to the minutes of a CoP meeting of 12 April 2018, the only CoP meeting where the Zuckerberg invitation was discussed. But that CoP meeting was not where the format of the Zuckerberg meeting was in fact decided – that was done through the written procedure. Following an earlier version of this article, this website came in possession of additional documents which changed the story.

Infographic

Facebook's increasing PR job in Brussels

Starting in 2012, when it first entered the EU's transparency register, Facebook has been steadily intensifying its lobbying efforts within European institutions.

British MPs condemn Facebook CEO's misrule

Cambridge Analytica scandal exposed "profound failure of governance within Facebook", British MPs said, while blaming Zuckerberg for his contempt for democratic scrutiny.

Opinion

The Greek Watergate

In the European Parliament hearing into espionage against Greek politicians and reporters, the spied-upon journalists recounted their experiences — but the non-answers provided by the Greek government official were embarrassing, confrontative, and institutionally vacant.

Investigation

NSO surveillance rival operating in EU

As European Parliament hearings into hacking scandals resume this week, an investigation led by Lighthouse Reports with EUobserver, Der Spiegel, Domani and Irpimedia reveals the unreported scale of operations at a shady European surveillance outfit.

News in Brief

  1. EU ministers adopt measures to tackle soaring energy bills
  2. EU takes Malta to court over golden passports
  3. EU to ban Russian products worth €7bn a year more
  4. Denmark: CIA did not warn of Nord Stream attack
  5. Drone sightings in the North Sea 'occurred over months'
  6. Gazprom threatens to cut gas deliveries to Europe via Ukraine
  7. New compromise over EU energy emergency measures
  8. 15 states push for EU-wide gas price cap

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. The European Association for Storage of EnergyRegister for the Energy Storage Global Conference, held in Brussels on 11-13 Oct.
  2. EFBWW – EFBH – FETBBA lot more needs to be done to better protect construction workers from asbestos
  3. European Committee of the RegionsThe 20th edition of EURegionsWeek is ready to take off. Save your spot in Brussels.
  4. UNESDA - Soft Drinks EuropeCall for EU action – SMEs in the beverage industry call for fairer access to recycled material
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic prime ministers: “We will deepen co-operation on defence”
  6. EFBWW – EFBH – FETBBConstruction workers can check wages and working conditions in 36 countries

Latest News

  1. Putin declares holy war on Western 'satanism'
  2. Two elections and 'Macron's club' in focus Next WEEK
  3. EU agrees windfall energy firm tax — but split on gas-price cap
  4. Ukrainian chess prodigy: 'We are not going to resign ... anywhere'
  5. Going Down Under — EU needs to finish trade deal with Australia
  6. MEPs worry Russian disinfo weakens support for Ukraine
  7. Everything you need to know about the EU gas price cap plan
  8. Why northeast Italy traded in League for Brothers of Italy

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us