Mark Zuckerberg to appear before European parliament

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Facebook chief’s closed-door meeting with MEPs will be seen as snub to UK

Jennifer Rankin in Brussels

Mark Zuckerberg has agreed to appear before the European parliament at a closed-door meeting possibly as soon as next week, according to the parliament president, Antonio Tajani.

The Facebook founder’s decision to meet MEPs will be seen as a snub to the UK parliament. British MPs have asked him to appear to explain the company’s role in the Cambridge Analytica scandal where the personal data of tens of millions of people was used without their permission.

“The founder and CEO of Facebook has accepted our invitation and will be in Brussels as soon as possible, hopefully already next week,” Tajani announced on Twitter on Wednesday.

Antonio Tajani (@EP_President)

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook CEO and founder, has accepted our invitation. He will come to the European Parliament. My full statement ⤵️ pic.twitter.com/FdmuDPl8Wb

“Our citizens deserve a full and detailed explanation. I welcome Mark Zuckerberg’s decision to appear in person before the representatives of 500 million Europeans.”

Zuckerberg has faced strong criticism from British MPs for his three refusals to appear before a British parliamentary committee investigating fake news. Potentially adding to their frustration, the Facebook boss will meet the French president, Emmanuel Macron, next Wednesday.

Macron would hold a one-on-one meeting with Zuckerberg, where there would be “very frank” discussions on all subjects, the president’s office said. While Macron wants to present himself as the champion of start-ups, he also wants tech companies to pay more tax and has proposed a law against fake news during elections.

The French president will meet more than a dozen technology chief executives, expected to include IBM’s Virginia Rometty and Microsoft’s Satya Nadella.

Zuckerberg’s trip to Europe comes ahead of the EU’s data protection regulation, which comes into play on 25 May, a landmark law allowing any individual in Europe to ask a company for data held about them.

But when the Facebook CEO comes to Brussels, he will not face the scrutiny of cameras, as he did during last month’s hearing before the US Congress. Behind closed doors, he will be questioned by political group leaders and the chair of the parliament’s justice and home affairs committee, the British Labour MEP Claude Moraes.

The decision not to have a public hearing has provoked anger. Guy Verhofstadt, the liberal leader, announced he would boycott the meeting unless it was public, asking why it could not be streamed on Facebook Live. He accused the centre-right bloc, the largest in the parliament, and the extreme right of colluding to keep the meeting private.

Guy Verhofstadt (@guyverhofstadt)

I will not attend the meeting with Mr Zuckerberg if it’s held behind closed doors. It must be a public hearing – why not a Facebook Live? I strongly regret that the @EPPGroup has colluded with extreme right to keep everything behind closed doors. https://t.co/uYqEDlRtyo

Sources at the European parliament said a public meeting livestreamed to the world was never going to happen. “[Zuckerberg] was never going to come here to have MEPs throw rotten fruit and veg at him,” said one source. “At the end of the day, he came to the EP and I think that is significant. It is good for Europe and it is good for the European parliament.”

The leaders of the parliament’s eight political groups will be invited to attend the meeting with Zuckerberg, which opens the door to Nigel Farage, who leads the Eurosceptic EFDD group that Ukip belongs to.

Facebook senior executives are expected to attend a public hearing in June at the European parliament’s home affairs committee. MEPs think Facebook could be represented by Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer, known for urging women to “lean in”. Another possible attendee is Joel Kaplan, the head of public policy, a former deputy chief of staff to George Bush.

Zuckerberg and Sandberg have made multiple apologies since the Cambridge Analytica story broke in the Observer, the Guardian’s sister Sunday newspaper. At Congress, Zuckerberg apologised several times and admitted it was a mistake to have trusted Cambridge Analytica when the firm said it had stopped using personal data it had harvested.

A spokesperson for Facebook said the group had accepted the “proposal to meet with leaders of the European parliament and appreciate[s] the opportunity for dialogue, to listen to their views and show the steps we are taking to better protect people’s privacy”.

 

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