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EU lawmakers to Facebook's Zuckerberg: 'We have a big problem here'

Ethan Wolff-Mann
Senior Writer

Facebook (FB) CEO Mark Zuckerberg apologized to lawmakers from the European Union in Brussels on Tuesday for the social network’s role in election interference, fake news, and Cambridge Analytica data misuse. This meeting came over a month after he testified for hours in front of the U.S. Congress on Capitol Hill.

“We weren’t prepared enough for the kind of coordinated misinformation operations that we are now aware of,” Zuckerberg said, referring to Facebook’s role in interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. “We’ve made these kinds of attacks much harder to do on Facebook.”

Zuckerberg pointed to France’s presidential election, the recent German elections, and Alabama’s special election for senator as examples of recent elections where Facebook played a more positive role. The Facebook CEO noted that Facebook has gotten better at using artificial intelligence (AI) to flag posts that need to be removed.

But, he said, “We’ll never be perfect on this. Our adversaries, especially on the election side, will have access to some of the same AI tools as we do. It’s an arms race.”

‘We have a big problem here’

The European lawmakers, most of whom spoke in English, appeared extremely well prepared and to have closely watched the U.S. Congress’s questions, and referenced them multiple times. They questioned the closed-nature of the Newsfeed algorithm, whether Facebook is a monopoly, and how it will comply with an upcoming new privacy regulation in Europe.

For Europe, the visit from the Facebook CEO comes a just a few days before its landmark General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) goes into effect (see Yahoo Finance’s post for more about this), a move that will restrict how Facebook and other tech companies use data.

“We have a big problem here and it’s not gonna be solved by saying, ‘we’ll fix it ourselves,'” said Guy Verhofstadt, a member of European Parliament of Belgium. Verhofstadt’s questions probed whether Facebook is a monopoly, comparing Facebook to a car company telling people, “we don’t have a monopoly, you can take a train or a plane.”

Zuckerberg also fielded questions from France’s Front National and the U.K.’s Nigel Farage, the architect of Brexit, over a perceived bias.

“We have never and will not make decisions about what content is allowed or how we do ranking on the basis of political orientation,” Zuckerberg said in response. He attributed the perception of political bias to the fact that Facebook has moved to promote posts from users’ friends and family over those of public accounts.

As the visit came to a close, a number of politicians expressed anger over the lack of answers. One member of Parliament said he had asked “six yes or no questions without a single answer.” Verhofstadt wanted more information about the army of Facebook reviewers.

“I am anxious of this brave new world that Mr. Zuckerberg has presented us!” he said.

Zuckerberg said he would follow up with the answers to the questions he was unable to answer. During the U.S. Congressional testimony, he similarly said he would follow up, but has not done so fully.

The testimony comes at a pivotal time for both Facebook and Europe. Facebook has been dealing with scandals tied to the spread of fake news, political ads paid for by foreign powers like Russia, and the amount of data that Facebook wields.

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