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EU Lawmakers Press Zuckerberg on Shadow Profiles, Antitrust Concerns

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg faced tough questions from EU lawmakers during a meeting with the Conference of Presidents of the Political Groups of the European Parliament Tuesday. Lawmakers pressed Facebook’s chief executive on issues ranging from privacy to antitrust.

Zuckerberg opened the meeting by reiterating many of the same remarks he had been using during recent appearances, once again apologizing for past misdeeds. “I’m committed to getting this right,” he said. Zuckerberg also reminded lawmakers of the economic force of his company in Europe, telling them that Facebook will employ some 10,000 people across 12 European cities by the end of the year.

EU lawmakers were having none of it. “Apologizing is a good thing,” said Manfred Weber, who is a member of the conservative European People’s Party. But apologies alone were not enough. “Now, it is time for acting.”

Weber went on to say that Zuckerberg hadn’t been able to mention a single competitor to his business when quizzed by U.S. lawmakers. He asked Zuckerberg whether there was a major competitor in Europe, adding, “It’s time to discuss breaking the Facebook monopoly. Can you convince me not to do so?”

Antitrust concerns were also brought up by other lawmakers, with Guy Verhofstadt from the Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe asking Zuckerberg whether he would open Facebook’s books for lawmakers to examine whether an antitrust problem existed, and whether he would be open to divest from individual services like Messenger.

Zuckerberg responded to these questions by claiming that the company had plenty of competitors. “We exist in a very competitive space,” he said, adding that the average person used  8 different tools for communication, including private messaging apps and more. “It feels like there are new competitors coming up every day,” he said without specifically addressing any suggestions to investigate antitrust concerns.

Zuckerberg was also pressed on his company’s tracking of users who don’t have Facebook profiles, but who may visit websites that are using Facebook’s ad and analytics tools — something that is widely known as shadow profiles. “If I’m not a Facebook user, am I able to see the data you collected on me,” asked Syed Kamall from the European Conservatives and Reformists Group. “Is the only way of Facebook collecting my data to stop using the internet altogether?”

Zuckerberg initially tried to side-step this question, leading to an awkward exchange of shouted follow-up questions. Being pressed by lawmakers, he claimed that the company had to keep data on logged-out users to prevent abuse. “On the security side, we think it is important to keep it to protect people in our community,” Zuckerberg said, without responding further to these concerns.

Zuckerberg also ducked a number of other tough questions, and instead talked about using artificial intelligence to proactively screen content for self-harm as well as extremist content. He was able to sidestep specific questions thanks to the format of the meeting, which had all of the attending E.U. parliamentarians ask their questions first, and then Zuckerberg answer them in bulk.

Lawmakers were clearly unhappy about the vagueness of his answers, and Zuckerberg ultimately promised to answer their questions in writing.

Zuckerberg’s remarks were seemingly fine-tuned to appeal to European lawmakers, with frequent references to European elections and other local incidents thrown in. However, some of his remarks seemed to be off-base. At one point, he boasted Facebook’s ability to register users for elections despite the fact that E.U. citizens generally don’t need to register to vote.

The format of the hearing also resulted in questions from journalists during a follow-up press conference held by Antonio Tajani, the president of the European parliament. Asked on who had suggested the format, Tajani said that it had come from the Conference of Presidents. However, a speaker of the German Green party took issue with this, claiming in a tweet that Facebook had been responsible for the format.

However, a Facebook spokesperson told Variety that both the format and the length of the hearing were set by Tajani and the Conference of Presidents.

Update: 12:42 pm: This post was updated with a statement from Facebook.

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