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Facebook's Zuckerberg could escape public grilling by European Parliament

James Crisp
Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify during a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee joint hearing about Facebook on Capitol Hill in Washington. - AFP

Mark Zuckerberg could escape a humiliating public grilling at the hands of MEPs desperate to interrogate the Facebook boss over the Cambridge Analytica data breach scandal.

The Telegraph has obtained emails sent by Antonio Tajani, the president of the European Parliament, which revealed he was prepared to accept Mr Zuckerberg being questioned by senior Brussels politicians behind closed doors.

Instead of Mr Zuckerberg facing the full glare of TV cameras in the bear-pit of the parliament, as he was forced to do in front of Congress in the US, he would instead speak in camera to the secretive conference of presidents.

While Mr Zuckerberg spent a gruelling ten hours in front of Congress, he would only be expected to face the meeting of the political group leaders for one hour and twenty minutes, Mr Tajani wrote after talks with Facebook.

High-ranking Facebook managers would appear for a public hearing at the European Parliament in return for sparing Mr Zuckerberg a savaging at the hands of MEPs who blame Cambridge Analytica and Facebook for the election of Donald Trump and Brexit.

If Mr Zuckerberg escapes the public mauling, it will come as a cold comfort to British MPs. They were furious the Facebook CEO refused to appear before them in Westminster, despite the UK regulator leading the probe into the data breach and Cambridge Analytica being a British company.

Mr Tajani’s plan, which had not yet been accepted by Facebook, was backed by Manfred Weber, the leader of the largest group in the European Parliament and his centre right political stablemate.

But Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of the liberals and the parliament’s Brexit coordinator, rejected the idea. “Mr Zuckerberg must appear in the European Parliament under the same circumstances as he did on Capital Hill,” Mr Verhofstadt wrote to Mr Tajani.

“We should not accept a lesser treatment from a CEO than the US Congress,” wrote Ska Keller, the co-president of the European greens.

Mr Tajani was forced to cancel a planned press conference to announce he had secured Mr Zuckerberg’s attendance. Negotiations over the format of the hearing will now continue but could be put to a majority vote.

Meanwhile, the Facebook chief executive was on Tuesday called again to appear before MPs in London after the company refused a fourth request to put its boss before the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee.

In evidence published by the Committee's ’s inquiry into fake news on Tuesday, Facebook UK head of public policy Rebecca Stimson said: “We were disappointed after providing a very significant amount of information to the Committee at the last hearing that the Committee declared our response insufficient.”

Ms Stimson added Mr Zuckerberg had “no plans to meet with the Committee or travel to the UK at the present time”.

Conservative MP Damian Collins, chair of the inquiry, said Facebook had provided a number of “excuses” instead of answers about its dealings with Cambridge Analytica and over Russian interference in elections.

“For too long these companies have gone unchallenged in their business practices, and only under public pressure from this Committee and others have they begun to fully cooperate with our requests,” Mr Collins said.

Mr Collins noted that if Mr Zuckerberg were not face them in person, he was welcome to talk to MPs using a video link.

Facebook and Cambridge Analytica | The story so far