European lawmakers barraged Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, with a litany of questions on Tuesday over his company’s vast power, with one even raising the prospect of breaking up the social media giant.
Accompanied by an entourage of aides, Mr. Zuckerberg’s visit to the European Union’s typically sleepy Parliament amounted to an olive branch of sorts by the social media titan. The Facebook chief executive, whose company has been fighting an array of scandals over its handling of user data, had initially resisted meeting with the European authorities, who have emerged as the world’s most assertive watchdog of the technology industry.
But his appearance on Tuesday in Brussels was a limited concession. While Mr. Zuckerberg testified to Congress last month in a theatrical display, with hours of questioning by lawmakers who could pass new legislation to crack down on Facebook, Europe’s Parliament is markedly weaker. It does not have the power to regulate Facebook, and its members rarely make news beyond their own national borders.
Still, Mr. Zuckerberg kept to the conciliatory script he used in Washington, reading a statement in which he apologized for Facebook’s role in spreading of misinformation, foreign interference in elections, and the mishandling of customer data.
Tuesday’s meeting in the European Parliament had an unusual format, and drew criticism from observers. After Mr. Zuckerberg’s opening remarks, members of Parliament spent nearly an hour asking dozens of questions one after the other before the executive could respond.
Mr. Zuckerberg sat stone-faced. Dressed in a dark suit and tie similar to what he has worn during past public meetings with government officials, he jotted down notes and occasionally sipped a glass of water as he faced the stream of questions and criticisms over the company’s data collection policies, effect on elections, online bullying, inability to prevent data leakage and political bias, among other topics.
One member of Parliament asked if Mr. Zuckerberg wanted to be remembered in the same high regard as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, or for destroying democracy. Another, Manfred Weber, a German member of the legislature, asked whether it was time to consider breaking up Facebook because the company had “too much power.” Claude Moraes, a lawmaker from Britain, pointed out that oversight of Facebook in Europe was much tougher than in the United States.
Once Mr. Zuckerberg was able to respond, he was selective about which questions to address. He reverted to previous statements about the development of artificial intelligence technology to spot violent content and bullying, and Facebook’s partnerships with fact-checker groups to stop the spread of misinformation. He also repeated a reference to setting up Facebook in his Harvard dorm room, something he frequently noted during his testimony to Congress.
Security around the Parliament building was extremely tight, at a heightened level typically reserved for national leaders, rather than chief executives.
The meeting — Facebook officials took pains to point out that Mr. Zuckerberg was not testifying — was the first time that European officials were able to question Mr. Zuckerberg since The New York Times and other news outlets revealed in March that the British political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica had improperly gathered data on millions of Facebook users without their knowledge.
Since then, Mr. Zuckerberg has embarked on a global apology tour, including posting a public mea culpa on his Facebook page. The company has started an advertising blitz to repair its image and introduced several new privacy settings.
To some European officials, those efforts have rung hollow.
“To say sorry is not enough,” Giovanni Buttarelli, the European Union’s data protection supervisor, said in an interview.
The Cambridge Analytica scandal was the result of Facebook’s lax privacy policies, Mr. Buttarelli said, adding that stricter oversight was needed globally because “it’s time for a different approach.”
Mr. Zuckerberg’s appearance comes ahead of the region’s introduction this Friday of a strict new data privacy law, called the General Data Protection Regulation. The rules, among the toughest in the world, empower regulators to fine companies up to 4 percent of their global revenue for privacy violations — equivalent to $1.6 billion for Facebook.
The rules also limit what personal data companies can collect without first acquiring consent from users, and open Facebook and other organizations to government investigations and consumer lawsuits.
The new protections are the latest in a series of crackdowns in Europe against technology companies in recent years. The European authorities have hit American tech companies for tax avoidance (Apple and Amazon); antitrust violations (Google, Microsoft and Qualcomm); and data-sharing violations (Facebook).
Silicon Valley giants complain that they are being unfairly targeted as successful American businesses — which officials in Europe deny.
European lawmakers’ meeting with Mr. Zuckerberg was the result of weeks of negotiations between Facebook and European officials. The session was initially scheduled to be held behind closed doors, but after an outcry in Brussels, Mr. Zuckerberg agreed to make the questioning public by streaming it online.
His appearance brought a rare buzz to the European Parliament. The body’s live stream for Mr. Zuckerberg’s appearance temporarily crashed, likely because of the high level of interest in the meeting.
“People are thrilled to put Zuckerberg on the grill,” said Karl Pincherelle, an aide to a French member of the European Parliament.
Though it does not have any direct powers over Facebook, the Parliament plays a role in drafting laws. Mr. Zuckerberg met with a small group of lawmakers, including the heads of various political blocs, rather than the Parliament’s full chamber. Separately, the body’s civil liberties committee is looking into Facebook’s practices in Europe, but did not get the chance to question the Facebook chief executive.