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Facebook’s Zuckerberg in Europe as tough data rules take effect

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Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg Reuters/Leah Millis/File Photo

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg faced grilling over data protection scandals in Europe this week as the European Union prepares to enact a vast data protection policy that will oblige web giants to be more careful about how they use personal information.


Zuckerberg’s appearance in the European Parliament followed an earlier grilling of the Facebook CEO in the US Senate.

Lawmakers are still demanding answers about how data firm Cambridge Analytica harvested personal information of 87 million people from the social network for a campaign to influence political opinion in the US.

The European visit also comes as the ambitions General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) comes into effect on Friday.

“There were discussions for these meetings to happen for the past few weeks, so it could be a coincidence,” says David Martin, senior legal officer with the European Consumer Organisation BEUC, as to the timing of the visit.

“But I would also say that Facebook is really looking to try and look as good as they can here, to try and show themselves as being responsible. So let’s say that the timing is perfect.”

In recent years the EU has led the charge in reining in the excesses of web giants in everything from misuse of personal information and illegal content to unfair competition and tax avoidance.

Now the GDPR essentially gives European national regulators more legal clout in enforcing data protection rules, allowing to impose fines of up to four percent of the global turnover of even the largest companies like Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon if they fail to comply.

“In the past, we have often seen companies taking a ‘Move fast and ignore the law’ strategy, because they knew that the consequences were going to be quite insignificant,” Martin says.

“The GDPR is definitely a big change from this perspective, and the consequences if they break the law can be quite serious, at least from an economic perspective.”

It’s not just about punishing companies for abuses, but creating a more mutually beneficial and trustworthy online culture, in which users are more aware of change, delete and know how their data are being used.

“There already is a shift in culture from the side of the companies and a shift in awareness of the end-user rights to their data,” observes Joe McNamee, executive director of data protection advocacy group European Digital Rights.

“Hopefully that will lead to an environment where there is increased trust, and more trust will lead to better security, better privacy and more opportunity for business to innovate with data to the further benefit to individuals.”

Zuckerberg is expected to discuss new models on Wednesday with French President Emmanuel Macron, who has invited Facebook along with other tech giants, including Samsung and Microsoft, for a meeting timed with GDPR.

“Macron would like to say that business models of US companies need to be discussed because of privacy protection and, at the same time, to cooperate for innovation, in order to avoid having young graduates leave for California for their skills and stay in Europe,” says Etienne Drouard, a privacy lawyer who helped draft the GDPR legislation.

“It is a model of what is the next business model for European innovative companies. Macron would like to be the first one to ask for not only protection, not only for privacy but also for businesses.”