Mark Zuckerberg is standing trial for the entire tech industry

Facebook CEO Zuckerberg is testifying before the US Senate.
Facebook CEO Zuckerberg is testifying before the US Senate.
Image: Reuters / Aaron Bernstein
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Mark Zuckerberg left his normal uniform of gray t-shirt and jeans at home for his first-ever appearance under oath in front of US lawmakers, and pledged to tell the whole truth, wearing a trim navy suit and Facebook-blue tie.

Zuckerberg testified for more than five hours in front of a packed, cavernous room at the Dirkson Senate building, a massive white office building next to the nation’s capitol, crowned with the words “The Senate is the Living Symbol of Our Union of States.” In a joint hearing, he faced the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.

“Today’s hearing is extraordinary. It’s extraordinary to hold a joint committee hearing. It’s even more extraordinary for a single CEO to testify before nearly half the U.S. Senate. But then, Facebook is pretty extraordinary. More than two billion people use Facebook every month,” John Thune, Republican from South Dakota and chairman of the commerce committee, said in his opening statement. “It’s also more than fifteen hundred times the population of my home state of South Dakota.”

“The story that you created represents the American dream, at the same time you have an obligation, and its up to you to make sure that dream doesn’t become a privacy nightmare,” Thune added. ”We’re listening, America is listening and quite possibly the world is listening too.”

Both Thune and ranking member Dianne Feinstein, Democrat from California, appeared to think that Zuckerberg was representing the entire tech industry in front of Congress. “I believe that FB through your presence here today… will indicate how strongly your industry will regulate or reform the platforms that they control,” Feinstein said.

Most intense hearing since Microsoft

“This is the most intense tech hearing since Microsoft” in the 1990s, said Orrin Hatch, Utah Republican.

During the hearing, Zuckerberg indicated that he would be open to supporting a rule suggested by Amy Klobuchar, Democrat from Minnesota, that users should be notified within 72 hours that their privacy had been breached. “That makes sense to me,” Zuckerberg said. He also confirmed that his company was cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

In answering questions, Zuckerberg often had prepared, careful answers, suggesting he was well aware of what would be coming his way. When asked by Thune how Facebook’s current-day apologies differ from a long history of apologizing, Zuckerberg answered:

“We have made a lot of mistakes in running the company. It is impossible to start a company in your dorm room” and not make mistakes, he said. “Overall I would say we’re going through a broader philosophical shift.”

John Cornyn, Republican from Texas followed up later on Facebook’s philosophy. “Until 2014, was the mantra of FB move fast and break things?”

With a smile, Zuckerberg answered: “I don’t know when we changed it but the mantra is now move fast with stable infrastructure.”

When asked whether the “move fast and break things” approach led to problems at the company, he said, “I do think that we made mistakes because of that,” but added it was more of a “cultural value” to allow engineers to make decisions quickly.

Sometimes, as some worried before the hearing, senators betrayed their lack of understanding of the technological nuances of Facebook’s platforms. Democratic Senator Brian Schatz, of Hawaii, asked whether the company had insight into users’ direct messages:

“Let’s say I’m emailing about [the hit movie] Black Panther in WhatsApp, do i get a banner ad about Black Panther?”

Who’s in control?

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat from Rhode Island, mentioned a loophole—which others have asked about before—in the company’s pledge to identify advertisers, when he asked how it would identify the real companies behind shell corporations.

Facebook is going to “require a valid government identity and then verify the location,” Zuckerberg said. But if the advertiser were a Russian company using a shell company in Delaware, then you “wouldn’t know,” Whitehouse asked.

“That’s correct,” Zuckerberg said.

In response to questions from another senator, Zuckerberg assured the lawmakers that the platform’s users are in control.

“Every person gets to control who gets to see their content. There are controls that determine what Facebook can do as well. There is a control about face recognition,” for example, he said.

“I think Facebook is safe,” Zuckerberg said, noting that he and his family use the service. These controls are not just to make people feel safe, or build trust, he added. He also denied that Facebook gets data from users’ microphones to target ads.

Why didn’t you do more?

Kamala Harris, the Democratic senator from California, said she was “concerned about how much Facebook values trust and transparency,” and listed questions that Zuckerberg hadn’t been able to answer, including whether users are tracked by devices that aren’t logged in to Facebook, and grilled him about why the company didn’t notify the 87 million users whose data was accessed by Cambridge Analytica in 2015.

“Did anyone at Facebook have a conversation wherein the decision was made not to contact the users?” the former prosecutor pushed.

Zuckerberg said he wasn’t aware of such a conversation and that he didn’t remember when the decision not to inform users was made. “Knowing what we know now we should have handled lots of things differently,” he said.

On sensitive information and discrimination

Democratic Senator Ed Markey of Masachussetts pressed Zuckerberg about whether consumers should be able to opt-in before companies like Facebook sell or share “sensitive information about their health or relationship.” He specifically asked whether Zuckerberg would support the “Consent Act” that he’s written “which would put on the books a law that said Facebook and any other company that gathers information about Americans has to get their affirmative permission before it can reuse information for other purposes.”

Zuckerberg seemed to agree that both were a good idea but was noncommittal about backing a law.

Zuckerberg said Facebook would not cooperate with an Immigration and Customs Enforcement initiative to rely on publicly available information and social media to help the agency identify immigrants who might commit crimes. The company cooperates with law enforcement when it spots an imminent threat from someone who might do harm, or when it gets a valid legal request for data, he said.

“I’ve always seen technology as a way to democratize our nation,” said New Jersey Democrat Cory Booker. But it gives people more sophisticated tools to discriminate, he added, referencing ProPublica’s revelations that Facebook allowed people to place discriminatory housing ads. 

Zuckerberg committed to opening up the platform to civil rights organizations, under Booker’s questioning, and to allowing them to “really audit the platform,” as Booker said.

The problem of content moderation and hate speech

Zuckerberg frequently mentioned the company’s dorm room history. At Harvard, “we had to enforce our content policies reactively,” Zuckerberg said. Now the company is developing AI tools, which Zuckerberg touted at length.

“Over a five-to-10 year period we’ll have AI tools” that will pick out hate speech, he said. “Until we get it more automated, there’s a higher error rate than I’m happy with,” he said.

At times, the CEO faced tough interlocutors. “Did anyone stop to ask themselves why Facebook and Google don’t charge for access? Nothing in life is free,” one senator observed.

Patrick Leahy, Democrat from Vermont, confronted Zuckerberg about the situation in Myanmar, where the United Nations said Facebook played a contributing role in ethnic cleansing. He cited a Facebook post that called for the death of a Muslim journalist. “That threat went straight through your system, and spread very quickly and it took attempt after attempt by a civil society groups to get it removed. Why wasn’t it down in 24 hours?”

“What’s happening in Myanmar is a tragedy,” Zuckerberg answered, in what sounded like a prepared response, and was quickly cut off by Leahy, who said that “we could all agree that it is a tragedy.”

Senator Chris Coons of Delaware, a Democrat, referenced a fake account built in his name. “Isn’t it Facebook’s job to better protect users and why do you shift the burden to users to flag inappropriate content and make sure it’s taken down?”

“This is an area that we need to do a lot better on,” Zuckerberg said. “We started off in my dorm room,” he said, repeating his favorite refrain, and the sheer volume of content means that the system was built so that people “report to us and then we review it.”

Facebook’s business model and the threat of regulation

“We’ve seen the apology tour before,” Richard Blumenthal, Democrat from Texas, said in one testy exchange. “You refuse to even acknowledge an ethical obligation to report” a violation of the 2011 Federal Trade Commission dissent decree that the company signed, he said. “I don’t see how you can change your business model unless there are specific rules of the road.”

The FTC issue came up multiple times, and Zuckerberg repeatedly said he believed the company did not violate the order. Asked by Kansas Republican Jerry Moran why only 300,000 people gave permission for their data to be used, and 87 million data profiles were shared, he replied, “The system worked as it was designed, but we designed it in a way that wasn’t good.”

South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham pushed Zuckerberg on whether his company is a monopoly. ”It certainly doesn’t feel like that to me,” he said.

“Do we own our own Facebook data?” Sen. Schatz asked, quipping that it doesn’t seem so, “otherwise we’d be getting a cut” of the profits.

“When you put information into the Facebook you are granting us a license to be able to show it to other people, and that’s necessary for the service to be able to operate,“ Zuckerberg said.

“You’re making about $40 billion a year on the data, I’m not making any money on it. It feels like you own the data,” added later Montana Democrat Jon Tester.

The CEO reiterated his earlier statement that enhancing security would affect the company’s profitability.

Financially, “this has hurt us,” Zuckerberg said, pushing back on the idea that there was little incentive for the company to improve its business model to be more user friendly.

“Your user agreement SUCKS”

Republican senator John Kennedy of Louisiana said Facebook was an “extraordinary American company,” but that the “digital utopia has some minefields” and that he believes Zuckerberg could fix them.

“There’s going to be a whole bunch of bills to regulate Facebook” proposed after this hearing, Kennedy said. “You can go back home and spend $10 million on lobbyists, or you can go back home and help us.”

“Here’s what everyone is trying to tell you,” he said, “Your user agreement sucks.” Facebook should “tell your $1,200-an-hour lawyers you want it written in English, not Swahili,” he said. Meanwhile, Facebook’s silver-haired lawyer, Colin Stretch, was taking notes.

On children on the platform

Senator Markey also asked Zuckerberg about a “privacy bill of rights for kids,” while senator Ben Sasse, a Republican from Nebraska, asked: “As a dad, do you worry about social media as a problem for America’s teens?”

Zuckerberg said he hoped to be “idealistic.” “Like any tool, there are good and bad uses, if you’re using social media in order to build relationships, that’s associated with long-term measures of well-being. But if you’re using the internet and social media to passively consume content, that doesn’t have those positive effects and could be negative.”

Political bias

Senator Ted Cruz, Republican from Texas, entered partisan territory. “What is the political orientation of the 15,000 or 20,000 people doing content review?” Cruz asked. “How many have supported a Republican candidate for office?”

To both questions Zuckerberg said he didn’t know.

In general on political bias, which Cruz pressed Zuckerberg on, he said he was aware that Silicon Valley is a left-leaning place. “This is actually a concern that I have making sure that we don’t have any bias in the work that we do, and I think that it is fair concern.”

In their closing statements, both Thune and Grassley said they hoped Zuckerberg would protect free speech “right or left.” Zuckerberg said his aim was to give people as much of a voice as possible.

Widespread concerns over data privacy

In his opening statement, Chuck Grassley, Republican from Iowa and chairman of the judiciary committee, said, “The tech industry has an obligation to respond to widespread and growing concerns over data privacy and security, and to restore the public trust. The status quo no longer works. Moreover, Congress must determine if and how we need to strengthen privacy standards to ensure transparency and understanding for the billions of consumers who utilize these products.”

Zuckerberg remained stone-faced throughout the senators’ statements. In his prepared remarks, he read the same statement that he prepared for the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, in front of which he is testifying Wednesday. The remarks were released Monday. He said:

It’s clear now that we didn’t do enough to prevent these tools from being used for harm as well. That goes for fake news, foreign interference in elections, and hate speech, as well as developers and data privacy. We didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibility, and that was a big mistake. It was my mistake, and I’m sorry. I started Facebook, I run it, and I’m responsible for what happens here.

Hundreds of Congressional staff, tech executives, activists and visiting families lined up for hours outside the Senate Judiciary chamber where the hearing was held to catch a glimpse of Zuckerberg and see the US government in action. The room was packed to capacity with 138 public seats, 84 press seats, dozens of photographers and a centrally placed desk with black leather chair where Zuckerberg would sit. Colin Stretch, the Facebook attorney who was the last company executive to testify in front of Congress, is sitting behind Zuckerberg.

Shauna Dillavou, the founder of Security Positive, a cyber-security consulting firm, had been on line since about 11am EST to get a seat. “I’ve seen how these tools can threaten people’s lives,” she said, and Facebook seems to have “zero concern about it.” The company’s internal vetting isn’t working, she said, and it doesn’t seem to be taking responsibility for what’s happening on the ground. “I’m here to see what grandma and grandpa can do about it,” she said, referring to the Senate Committee.

“I want to see them make their code open source. I want to seem him take responsibility.” Above all, Dillavou said, she wants to see less “bullshit,” on everything from how people get data from their app to how diverse their staff actually is.

The moment has focused the world’s attention because it could represent a historical turning point.

Zuckerberg is the richest American under 40

With a net worth of over $60 billion, Zuckerberg is the richest American under the age of 40, and the nation’s fourth-richest individual. His rise from college-dropout to leading one of the world’s most powerful information companies over the past decade is one of Silicon Valley’s most powerful creation myths—and the company’s failure to stop the abuse on its platform is one of the industry’s biggest black marks.

America has failed to regulate its technology giants as they grew, and what lawmakers decide after this week’s hearings about Facebook’s future could impact what happens to Google, Amazon, and the tech industry in the US overall, which dominates communications and information sharing around the world.

A more fundamental question looms: Will the deeply-fractured US political system hold Russia accountable for the damage it may have done to its democracy during the last presidential election? The Facebook hearing comes after months of investigation by the Senate Intelligence Committee, and an aborted attempt by the House, which closed its own probe after declaring an investigation impossible because of political divides.

Chris Chaffee, a homebuilder from Maryland with a brush cut mustache who was wearing in navy suit and an American flag pin, stood in line with other members of the public waiting to hear what Zuckerberg had to say. “We want to know what’s next,” he said. Above all, he said “we want to keep the government out of Facebook,” he said. “I want to know what he knows, and what the Obama administration knew,” he said. “I don’t want to see Facebook destroyed,” he said. “I don’t think the Senate knows what it wants to do,” he added.

Hours before Zuckerberg took the stand, president Donald Trump lashed out on Twitter about the “Witch Hunt” he thinks the Russian investigation has become, after his personal lawyer’s office and home was raided on Monday by investigators. Trump is threatening to fire the FBI special counsel investigating Russia’s interference, a situation that would tip the US into a constitutional crisis, and set off hundreds of pre-planned protests across the country.

Complicating matters, the age of members of US Congress is among the oldest in history. Senators are, on average, 61 years old, and some people believe they may not be cognizant of how technology is used in the internet age. The committee’s Democratic chair Dianne Feinstein raised concerns about her ability to properly probe the situation this morning, after calling Zuckerberg a “nice young man.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly identified senator John Kennedy as hailing from Indiana, when he is from Louisiana.