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15th Jul 2018

Facebook CEO causes EU stink ahead of trip

  • Zuckerberg to meet select MEPs and Macron on EU tour (Photo: Anthony Quintano)

Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg's EU charm tour has gone awry before it began over plans to hide from public scrutiny.

The 34-year old CEO has agreed to talk to top MEPs in Brussels about privacy violations, but only behind closed doors, prompting criticism in the EU capital.

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"Pity this will not be a public hearing. There are more EU users on Facebook than there are in the US & Europeans deserve to know how their data is handled," EU justice commissioner Vera Joureva said on Twitter on Wednesday (16 May).

Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of the liberal Alde group, said: "I will not attend the meeting with Mr Zuckerberg if it's held behind closed doors. It must be a public hearing".

"I strongly regret that the EPP group has colluded with the extreme right to keep everything behind closed doors," he added, referring to the centre-right group, the largest in the European Parliament (EP).

The centre-left S&D and the Green groups echoed Verhofstadt.

The parliament's president, Antonio Tajani, an EPP man who set up the Zuckerberg meeting, joined the public tit-for-tat.

"This is a decision of the conference of presidents [an EP body]. It is not your job to control and criticise the European Parliament," he tweeted back at Joureva.

Manfred Weber, who leads the EPP group, also joined in.

"Good to hear that Mark Zuckerberg will come to the European Parliament. This is a strong message that the EP president … is sending to European consumers," he said.

Zuckerberg is coming to Europe next week to assuage concerns after Facebook mishandled the private data of millions of EU users in league with a British firm, Cambridge Analytica, for the sake of US election meddling.

He will also have a private audience with the French leader in Paris, but declined to face questions from the British parliament.

"We … appreciate the opportunity for dialogue, to listen to their views and show the steps we are taking to better protect people's privacy," Facebook said on the MEPs meeting.

"We are looking forward to meeting next week with the president of the French republic, Emmanuel Macron," the US company added.

"There will be tough discussions," an official in Macron's office told the Reuters news agency.

Zuckerberg's contrition tour comes a few days before new EU data protection rules, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), enter into force on 25 May.

The GDPR could see Facebook fined billions for future data violations amid fears that others could do in the EU what Cambridge Analytica did in the US vote in 2016.

Facebook is already under fire from regulators in France and Germany for publishing fake news at election time.

It is also under fire from the European Commission for aggressive tax planning that amounted to state aid in Ireland in return for perks.

Meanwhile, the EU parliament's Tajani defended his closed-doors format in a press release as well as on social media.

He said Zuckerberg's decision to meet "representatives of 500 million Europeans" was a "step in the right direction".

Those representatives would amount to just 10 people - Tajani himself, the heads of the eight EP groups, and the chair of the civil liberties committee.

The group would shrink to nine or fewer if Verhofstadt or others boycotted the meeting.

It would contain few tech experts, but it would include two eurosceptic and far-right MEPs, who seldom have much to say on details of EU law.

The Zuckerberg mini-meeting would be followed by a public grilling of lower-level Facebook executives by the civil liberties committee, Tajani promised, however.

This would focus on "potential impact on electoral processes in Europe" as well as on publication of "blatantly false news and illegal content", he said.

Austria accused of undermining new EU data law

Most EU states have yet to pass the national laws needed to equip authorities with the resources to enforce the upcoming EU general data protection regulation. Austria, previously deemed a leader for high data standards, appears increasingly wary.

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

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