Mark Zuckerberg isn't known for his sense of humor. Summoned to appear before European Parliament in Brussels Tuesday morning, however, the Facebook founder and CEO opted to open with a little joke.

"It's great to be back in Europe," Zuckerberg deadpanned. 

The joke being, of course, that he was in Europe only with the greatest reluctance, there to answer questions on a topic--Facebook's repeated failure to protect the privacy of its users and the security of its service--he was already sick of talking about after spending many hours discussing it with members of the U.S. Congress in April.

Maybe it wasn't a joke but rather a pleasantry the less-than-lifelike leader had trouble selling. (If reality were Westworld, Zuckerberg would be back in cold storage along with the other first-generation Hosts.) And maybe he was in fact feeling cheerful in the knowledge that his visit was destined to be a success, conveying a vague sense of transparency and accountability without carrying any real risk of unwanted disclosure.

That much was assured by the carefully negotiated format of the session, in which the assembled EU representatives, one by one, recited questions and admonishments, while Zuckerberg patiently listened and took notes. Only after the last parliamentarian had said his piece was Zuckerberg, with a mere 15 minutes left on the clock, expected to answer.

Predictably, Zuckerberg started by fielding the questions to which he had set-piece, well-polished answers. The phrase "a broader view of our responsibilities" made more than one appearance. He cited Facebook's research showing "meaningful interactions" with friends make social-media users happier while "passive" content consumption can decrease happiness.

By the time he finished his "Zuck's Greatest Hits" performance, the session's scheduled end time had come and gone. It was only when Zuckerberg attempted to excuse himself, saying he was "mindful of the time," the parliamentarians seemed to realize what he had done to them.

"You asked for this format for a reason!" Philippe Lamberts, a Belgian representative, said accusingly. 

Of course he did. In his appearance on Capitol Hill, Zuckerberg was also able to use his interlocutors' grandstanding to kill the clock, but those who were canny enough to come equipped with follow-up questions were able to wring a few savory sound bites out of him, as when Sen. Richard Durbin cornered him into saying he wouldn't be comfortable sharing the name of his hotel. In Brussels, there was no back-and-forth. Parliamentarians had to settle for a rushed promise that Facebook would deliver written answers to their questions afterward.

It was a victory for Zuckerberg, but a setback of sorts, as well. In recent weeks, many critics of Facebook have pointed to a seemingly sincere desire by Zuckerberg and the company to listen to outside voices and be more responsive to the issues they raise as evidence that Facebook, as heedless as it has been about its power to date, could yet become the force for global good it imagines itself to be. That was the argument Buzzfeed's Alex Kantrowitz, a close observer of all things Facebook, made on This Week in Startups last week.

For Zuckerberg to agree to appear before representatives of countries comprising half a billion people on the condition he not have to answer tough questions suggests Facebook is sliding back into its old pattern of responding to outcries by promising to do better in the future, doing just enough to convey a sense of sincerity--then waiting for everyone to forget the whole thing.

If you believe a company that's built to last is one that has the capacity to change with the times, that's not reassuring.

Published on: May 22, 2018