Tuesday

22nd Jun 2021

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.

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  • 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.

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