Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. But we should still be profoundly disturbed: It has now become clear that our elected representatives, the people whom we send to parliaments and congresses to make laws on our behalf, cannot cope with the profound technological changes that are transforming our political debate. The poor performance of the U.S. Senate, some of whose members were barely capable of posing questions to Facebook’s co-founder and chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg during a hearing last month, might have been an anomaly. Now the European Parliament has managed to organize an unsatisfying hearing as well.
The two events were not disastrous for the same reasons. The Senate hearing was mostly remarkable for the large number of weak questions. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) asked Zuckerberg if he’d ever heard of Palantir, a very large, hard-to-miss tech company. Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) appeared unfamiliar with the concept of Facebook Messenger. Other questioners were more astute, but many were grandstanding. It didn’t matter. Zuckerberg appeared polite, said he’d “get back to you” on the crucial details and went home.
Grandstanding was a problem at European Parliament too. The parliamentarians spent about 60 minutes asking questions. Though some of them were quite specific — will Facebook commit to paying taxes in the countries where it operates? — they also overlapped and rambled on. In the time that remained — about 22 minutes — Zuckerberg appeared polite, said he’d “get back to you” on the crucial details and went home.
In the aftermath, a number of members of the European Parliament took to the airwaves to denounce the Facebook founder for his non-answers. Yet it was their hearing: They were the ones who decided to address too many issues, who failed to make time for follow-up questions and who let Zuckerberg leave the room without committing to anything, let alone to paying taxes. At least they’re ahead of the British Parliament, which has repeatedly and unsuccessfully asked Zuckerberg to appear.
For anyone concerned about the future of Western democracy, the failure of Western lawmakers to make a single CEO of a single tech company answer questions about the consequences of the information revolution — for privacy, for good journalism, for national budgets, for political debate — should set off a loud alarm. One of the most important sources of contemporary disdain for democracy is the widespread perception that democratic institutions are weak, incompetent and, more importantly, unsuited to the rapidly evolving digital world. This is might be the last chance to undermine that perception.
Legislators need to open up this debate to the public, find ways of informing and including their voters, bring in more experts and more witnesses, separate out the issues and address them all separately. Not every problem requires an elected body to resolve it, but some of them — the issues around political advertising, for example — very well might. If our democratic representatives can’t do it, who will?