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Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has a tough road ahead in Europe on data privacy
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Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has a tough road ahead in Europe on data privacy

by Sarita BaidhyaMay 24, 2018

Turns out “sorry” doesn’t seem to work as much for the social network’s chief anymore.

How many times can you say you’re sorry before we stop caring?

If Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s globe-trotting apology tour over privacy violations, election meddling and allowing hate speech to flourish on Facebook is any sign, the answer is not that many.

After telling the US Senate, the US House of Representatives, Facebook’s 2.2 billion users, the company’s investors, 5,000 developers and loads of advertisers that he screwed up, Zuckerberg said he was sorry yet again on Tuesday when he admitted to the European Parliament that fake news and misuse of Facebook users’ private information has become a serious problem for the world’s largest social network.

But when it came to anything substantive about European privacy laws, concerns Facebook may be turning into a monopoly and how people can avoid their data being tracked by Facebook even if they’re not a user, Zuck didn’t have a lot to say.

European regulators ran out of patience.

“I asked you six ‘yes’ and ‘no’ questions, and I got not a single answer,” said Guy Verhofstadt, a Parliament member representing Belgium. “Yes,” someone in the room echoed in support. Others chimed in. One lawmaker interrupted Zuckerberg’s closing statements to ask if Facebook is a monopoly. Another complained about the Facebook CEO’s lackluster responses.

“I’ll make sure we follow up and get you answers to those,” Zuckerberg said, deferring to his team to provide more complete responses, just as he did with Congress in April.

That’s what we heard, but what we’re seeing with EU regulators’ reaction is an uncomfortable reality for Zuck and Co.

Over the past two months, Facebook has scrambled to contain the fallout from the spiraling scandal that began with Russian meddling in the US election and then hit a fever pitch when the company admitted in March that as many as 87 million user profiles may have been sold to a UK-based political consultancy called Cambridge Analytica.

I’m sorry.
Zuckerberg, speaking before the US Senate
Since then, Facebook’s released new features designed to better protect privacy and enacted new policies to ensure app developers can’t improperly collect and sell users’ information. And it’s put out a series of ads and public apologies in addition to all those statements and posts from Zuckerberg.

Investors remain confident in Facebook’s chief and his plan — the company’s shares were little changed after his testimony in Brussels — and even with #DeleteFacebook campaigns, hordes of users aren’t abandoning the service. At least for now.

Zuckerberg needs to keep saying and doing the right thing to convince you, me and everyone else who uses its services — WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook itself — that he can be trusted to be the guardian of our photos, contacts, political views, religious beliefs and anything else we post. Facebook needs us to share, like and log in to the social network a lot from our mobile devices so it can serve up all the targeted and lucrative ads that are the source of its $41 billion in annual sales.

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“I think people always need to hear that there were mistakes made and they’re going to work to fix this,” said James Norton, a former deputy assistant for the Department of Homeland Security in the George W. Bush administration. “However I’m not sure it’s fixable unless the business model changes.”

Facebook declined to make Zuckerberg available for an interview.

Stinging questions
In many ways, Facebook’s ad business model was as much under scrutiny during the hearing as the company’s self-inflicted privacy problems. Members of the European Parliament repeatedly asked about how their constituents can opt out of Facebook’s data collection — even when they don’t have a Facebook account but visit sites and use services that embed Facebook’s advertising and analytics tools. This is a problem called shadow profiles, and Zuckerberg essentially said people can’t avoid being tracked.

The politicians also worried about data that’s shared between Facebook and its WhatsApp messenger app, whose early popularity in Europe came because it gave people a way to avoid country-to-country text messaging charges. The UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) found in March that some information may be shared between the two apps for ad-serving purposes, running afoul of privacy rules.

It was my mistake, and I am sorry.
Zuckerberg, speaking before the US House of Representatives
Zuckerberg’s unwillingness to address those concerns in detail didn’t win him any fans and it certainly didn’t help telegraph Facebook’s sincerity, Norton added.

Instead, Zuckerberg’s testimony came off as damage control, said Rahul Telang, professor of information systems at the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College. He said Zuckerberg “wants to repair” the company’s image, but it seemed more like Facebook’s chief spoke in Brussels “grudgingly.”

The format of the meeting didn’t help. The regulators asked their questions one after another, rather than in a question-and-answer format like what Zuckerberg faced with the US Congress. When time came for Zuckerberg to speak, he spent about 15 minutes responding to the questions as a group, instead of individually. That’s when regulators began complaining he hadn’t given sufficient answers.

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Sarita Baidhya

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