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Mark Zuckerberg says he wants stricter European-style privacy laws — but some experts are questioning his motives

Key Points
  • Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg praised Europe's strict privacy law called GDPR in a blog post Saturday.
  • But privacy experts in Europe familiar with GDPR said Zuckerberg’s underlying message is less about protecting individuals’ rights than Facebook’s own business model.
  • Zuckerberg isn't the first tech CEO to endorse GDPR-like rules.
Mark Zuckerberg, CEO, Facebook
Justin Sullivan | Getty Images

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's cry for stricter internet regulation, including widespread adoption of European-style rules, has left some privacy advocates in Europe unimpressed.

In a Washington Post op-ed and blog post published Saturday, Zuckerberg laid out four areas of the internet that require a "more active role for governments and regulators." One area, he said, is a common framework for comprehensive privacy regulation such as GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation), the EU's sweeping set of rules that went into effect last May.

The law aims to give consumers more control over their personal data with key clauses such as the right to access your data and have it deleted. But privacy experts in Europe familiar with GDPR said Zuckerberg's underlying message is less about protecting individuals' rights than Facebook's own business model.

"By trying to focus attention on GDPR, Zuckerberg is presumably trying to protect Facebook by getting out ahead of other regulation and trying to avoid getting into conversations about competition law and breaking up these monopolizing tech giants," said Jennifer Cobbe, coordinator of the Trust & Technology Initiative at the University of Cambridge, in an email to CNBC on Sunday.

'Acknowledgement of reality'

Any company that does business in the European Union must meet GDPR's standards, or it risks facing strict fines of up to 4 percent of global annual revenues. Facebook is no exception.

"Isn't what Mr. Zuckerberg is saying an acknowledgement of the reality that there's a new law out there and Facebook has to comply?" said Antonis Patrikios, a privacy and cybersecurity lawyer at London-based law firm Fieldfisher, in an interview Monday.

Zuckerberg isn't the first tech CEO to endorse GDPR-like rules. Last year, Apple CEO Tim Cook called for federal privacy regulation and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has also praised Europe's laws.

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Some experts say it's easier for big tech companies with deep pockets to meet GDPR's standards than smaller start-ups.

"We should not forget that big tech companies such as Facebook have the budgets, the know-how and the resources to comply with highly-complex, high-standard regulation," Patrikios said. "Not everyone in the market has the same capabilities."

While penalties under Europe's data protection laws have gotten heftier, antitrust fines are likely still a bigger threat. Cobbe said Facebook's efforts to merge messaging between its Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger platforms are aimed not at improving privacy but at making it harder for regulators to take apart Facebook's platforms.

"It's much harder to take it all apart again once they've been brought together," she said. "Avoiding competition interventions seems to be Facebook's new strategy."

Political pressure

Zuckerberg's call for more regulation was also interpreted by some as a public relations push as Facebook faces mounting political backlash around the world. The company is facing a number of investigations and charges from agencies in the U.S. and abroad for data abuses such as the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Elizabeth Warren has made breaking up big tech companies a key platform of her campaign.

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U.K. lawmakers have been especially critical of Facebook's pledge to deliver more security on its platforms. Damian Collins, chair of the U.K.'s digital, culture, media and sport committee which recently completed an 18-month investigation into Facebook and other social media companies, urged Zuckerberg to testify in front of a grand committee of global lawmakers next month in a tweet on Saturday.

Michael Veale, a technology policy researcher at University College London, said ultimately Facebook would have to redesign its business model, which relies on collecting detailed user data, to prove privacy is a real priority.

"If you choose to track people in so much detail, you need to design your system to provide them with their rights over that very detailed, invasive data," he said.

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