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EU Tech Chief Threatens Facebook’s CEO With Regulation

Natalia Drozdiak

(Bloomberg) -- The European Union’s tech chief Thierry Breton said Facebook Inc. will face more regulation if Mark Zuckerberg fails to assuage concerns about business practices, including around market power, as the two men went toe-to-toe in a live-streamed debate.

Zuckerberg and EU Industry Commissioner Breton on Monday discussed internet governance as well as the role of platforms in managing the coronavirus pandemic, in a debate hosted by CERRE, the Center on Regulation in Europe. The conversation followed a face-to-face meeting between the two in Brussels in February.

“At the end of the day, if we cannot find a way, we will regulate, of course,” Breton said, adding later that “it will be Mark that will be responsible, nobody else.”

The social media giant has been battling violent hate speech, disinformation and fraudulent posts related to the pandemic on its sites, while advertising revenue softens as a result of the crisis.

Monday’s debate between Facebook’s chief executive officer and the senior EU official come as the bloc prepares new legislation for gate-keeping tech platforms and around liability for users’ posts, both of which could impact Facebook’s business.

“I don’t think there’s a question there’s going to be regulation. I think the question is whose framework is going to win around the world,” Zuckerberg said, adding he “worries” that less democratic models for regulating technology, like China’s, could spread to other countries.

“The best antidote to that is having a clear regulatory framework that comes out of Western democratic countries that becomes a standard around the world,” he said, adding “we have a joint responsibility to help develop this.”

Zuckerberg acknowledged Brussels’ important role in tech regulation around the world. The EU’s sweeping laws on privacy forced Facebook, Google and others to change how they collect user data and influenced other countries to follow suit.

Breton, 65, joined the new European Commission in December as EU industry chief, a role that gives him jurisdiction over a wide range of portfolios, including the so-called Digital Services Act, which will overhaul platform’s legal liability for content posted on its sites. EU tech czar Margrethe Vestager, whose hefty antitrust fines against Alphabet Inc.’s Google and others have earned her a reputation as big tech’s fiercest nemesis, oversees the work.

“If you understand our values, then you understand how you need to behave,” Breton said in response to Zuckerberg’s comment, adding that it required the company to not shut out rivals, and “be careful with democracy, be careful with disinformation.”

The talkative former CEO of IT company Atos and former French finance minister has sought to make a mark during his short time in office. Speaking frequently to French press, Breton often touts tough lines he’s taken in discussions with Silicon Valley chiefs.

Zuckerberg praised previous cooperation with Breton, including around the EU official’s push to get Facebook, Netflix Inc. and Google’s YouTube to reduce the quality of video streaming to relieve networks strained by the coronavirus pandemic.

The Facebook chief has previously called for more regulation of the internet -- including around election integrity, harmful content and privacy -- which in turn has raised questions around the sincerity of his efforts. A white paper published in February outlining the social media giant’s vision for regulating harmful content online called for measures the company in large part already enforces, including implementing channels where users can report content and requiring periodic public reporting of companies’ efforts to remove such posts.

(Updates with comments starting in sixth paragraph.)

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