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France's Macron takes on Facebook's Zuckerberg in tech push

  • France-Suburbs

    French President Emmanuel Macron speaks during the presentation of the French government's battle plan for the country's most deprived areas Tuesday at the Elysee Palace in Paris.

    LUDOVIC MARIN / POOL VIA AP

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PARIS — Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg may finally find a friendly face when he meets French President Emmanuel Macron. Or not.

Macron is courting Zuckerberg and the leaders of Microsoft, Uber, IBM and dozens of other tech bosses at a conference Wednesday aimed at persuading them to use their global influence for the public good — things like protecting worker rights and privacy, and investing in tech literacy for the masses.

But the meeting comes as Facebook, Google and other online giants are increasingly seen as predators that abuse personal data, avoid taxes and stifle competition.

Zuckerberg comes to Paris after facing tough questions Tuesday from European Union lawmakers in Brussels, where he apologized for the way the social network has been used to produce fake news and interfere in elections. But the Facebook founder also frustrated the lawmakers as the testimony's setup allowed him to respond to a list of questions as he sought fit.

Macron sees himself as uniquely placed to both understand and influence the tech world. France's youngest president, Macron has championed startups and aggressively wooed technology investors.

But Macron is also one of Europe's most vocal critics of tax schemes used by companies like Facebook that deprive governments of billions of euros a year in potential revenue. And Macron has defended an aggressive new European data protection law that comes into effect this week. The so-called GDPR regulation will give Europeans more control over what companies can do with what they post, search and click.

Aides to Macron acknowledged companies like Facebook have become more influential than governments. The aides insisted that Macron isn't trying to kiss up to such companies or let them whitewash their reputations through philanthropic gifts, but wants a “frank” discussion.

“These are companies with a weight that you can't ignore,” one Macron aide said. While they can be “predators,” the aide said, “we have to treat them like a foreign country: be tough when you need, but not declare war.”

The aides spoke only on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to be publicly named.

Privacy and taxes are among issues Macron will raise with Zuckerberg and the other tech executives in one-on-one meetings and a mass lunch Wednesday in the presidential palace with philanthropists and politicians.

Macron, Zuckerberg and others are then expected to attend the Vivatech gadget show in Paris on Thursday.

At Tuesday's hearing in the European Parliament in Brussels, Zuckerberg said Facebook “didn't take a broad enough view of our responsibilities,” adding, “That was a mistake, and I'm sorry for it.”

But lawmakers left frustrated. Liberal leader Guy Verhofstadt asked whether Zuckerberg wanted to be remembered as “a genius who created a digital monster that is destroying our democracies and our societies.”



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