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Zuckerberg apology to European Parliament over data scandal branded 'inadequate'

Luke James
Brussels correspondent
Protestors outside the European Commission building in Brussels ahead of a visit by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (Reuters)

Mark Zuckerberg has apologised for “harm” caused by Facebook in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal – but his response was branded “inadequate.”

The Facebook founder made the comment as he was quizzed over the scandal which hit 87 million of its users – including 1.1 million in the UK – at the European Parliament.

He admitted that Facebook hasn’t done enough to stop its tools “being used for harm.”

“Whether it’s fake news, foreign interference in elections or developers misusing people’s information, we didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibilities,” he told MEPs.  

“That was a mistake, and I’m sorry.”

Facebook is doubling the number of staff tasked with taking down unsafe content and was hiring an army of fact checkers, he reassured them.

But MEPs said the apology would count for nothing without concrete action to prevent the misuse of data and provide transparency over Facebook’s influence on politics.

Liberal MEP Guy Verhofstadt described Zuckerberg’s answers as “totally inadequate.”

And he warned the Facebook boss that he risked going down in history as a “a genius who created a digital monster that is destroying our democracies and our societies.”

Mark Zuckerberg answering questions at the European Parliament (Reuters)

The meeting was part of what has been dubbed an “apology tour” for the Cambridge Analyrica scandal – Zuckerberg had already faced both houses of the US Congress but has repeatedly refused to appear before British MPs.

It comes after Facebook admitted last month that the personal data of up to 87 million of its users was “improperly shared” with Cambridge Analytica, which used it to help political campaigners target voters.

Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie claims the data was used by pro-Brexit campaigners in the EU referendum, as well as Donald Trump’s team in the US Presidential election.

European Parliament President Antonio Tajani hailed the hearing as a “success” and said it showed MEPs are able to defend the rights of the citizens.

MORE: UK accounts for one third of all EU Facebook users hit by data breach

But the format of the meeting has been widely criticised. Rather than responding to questions as he received them, Zuckerberg was allowed to respond to them all at the end of the hearing.

It allowed the Facebook boss to give vague responses to detailed questions and the meeting ended in chaos as MEPs demanded more time.

The Green group said Zuckerberg had given “vague” answers to “precise” questions and accused the European Parliament of giving Zuckerberg an “easy way out.”

Socialist group leader Udo Bullman MEP called the format a “farce.”

Tajani admitted afterwards that the meeting “could have lasted longer” but said Zuckerberg would answer questions he hadn’t responded to during the meeting in writing.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg gets a cold welcome from European Parliament President Antonio Tajani (Reuters)

One of the few points that Zuckerberg responded to in detail was raised by UKIP’s Nigel Farage.

Farage said Brexit could not have happened without Facebook, but said he and other right-wing politicians had seen a 25% drop in views and engagements of their posts on the site since its algorithm was changed in January.

Zuckerberg said changes had been made to prioritise the content of family and friends rather than political content, but insisted Facebook was not politically biased.

“I can commit that we have never and will not make decisions about what content is allowed or how we do ranking on the basis of a political orientation,” he told Farage.

“That’s an important philosophical point for me that I’m proud to be able to commit to.”

Zuckerberg also said Facebook was ready to implement a new EU data privacy law – the General Data Protection Regulation – which takes effect on Friday.

Companies which do not comply could be fined up to 4% of their global annual turnover.

Although Zuckerberg is visiting the European institutions for the first time, Facebook has a substantial lobbying operation in Brussels.

The social media giant spent €2.5m lobbying the EU last year and only three other companies have had more meetings with the European Commission, according to the Corporate Europe Observatory.

MORE: Zuckerberg to face public hearing at European Parliament after protests