Mark Zuckerberg’s House testimony covered the opioid crisis, diversity, conservative censorship and Facemash

Day 2.
Day 2.
Image: P Photo/Andrew Harnik
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Following a long, and often perplexing day of testimony in the Senate, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg today (April 11) testified in front of the House Committee on Energy and Science—a hearing that was expected to be more trying for the multibillionaire, which it was in some ways, but which also was steeped in partisan agenda, and peppered with a healthy dose of pandering toward the executive.

Zuckerberg came in battle-tested and boosted by the stock market, where Facebook’s stock rallied on his performance both yesterday and in Wednesday morning trading.

“While Facebook has certainly grown, I worry it has not matured. I think it is time to ask whether Facebook may have moved too fast and broken too many things,” said Greg Walden, Republican from Oregon, in his opening statement. 

“Today, we hope to shed light on Facebook’s policies and practices surrounding third-party access to and use of user data. We also hope you can help clear up the considerable confusion that exists about how people’s Facebook data are used outside the platform,” he said.

Ranking member Frank Pallone called for regulation. “It’s time to pass comprehensive legislation to prevent incidents like this in the future,” he said. “If all we do is have a hearing then nothing happens, that’s not accomplishing anything.”

Sporting a darker tie than yesterday, Zuckerberg gave the same prepared remarks that the House Committee released Monday.

During the testimony, Zuckerberg said his own data was obtained by Cambridge Analytica, the consulting firm used by Donald Trump’s campaign that is at the center of the most recent scandal involving Facebook. Users can now check if their data was accessed through a special tool on Facebook. He also said Aleksandr Kogan, the researcher who sold the data to Cambridge Analytica, also sold it to a “handful” of other companies.

With a four-minute time limit, the members of congress had significantly less time to press Zuckerberg. The format, on the one hand, gave them opportunity to cut the executive off when he was not answering a question, but, on the other, forced them to focus on the message they wanted to send, rather than delve into an issue.

Multiple members praised Zuckerberg for Facebook’s local initiatives in their constituent areas, and the company’s contributions to the US economy. Eliot Engel from New York said that Zuckerberg’s high school was proud of him, and Chris Collins of New York focused on congratulating the CEO and emphasizing he didn’t think the company needed to be regulated.

Congressman Billy Long, Republican from Missouri, had a question that came out of left field. “What is FaceMash and is it still up and running?” he asked, referencing the proto-Facebook that Zuckerberg created in his Harvard dorm room that would compare women just based on their appearance. “There’s a movie about this,” Zuckerberg answered, referring to The Social Network. This question seemed to only serve the purpose to say: “You’ve come a long way”—which some think was a shrewd move to show Facebook’s ickier origins. 

Zuckerberg’s own representative, Anna Eshoo, Democrat from California, asked the CEO: “Do you think you have a moral responsibility to run a platform that protects our democracy?” Yes, Zuckerberg answered unequivocally.

Like during the Senate hearing, representatives often asked Zuckerberg wide-ranging, non-specific questions, which were easy for Zuckerberg to dodge:

“Are you willing to change your business model in the interest of protecting privacy?” Eshoo asked. “Congresswoman, I’m not sure what that means,” Zuckerberg answered.

The opioid crisis enters the debate

Some of the most aggressive questioning came from David McKinley, Republican from West Virginia, who asked Zuckerberg about online pharmacies selling opioids illegally and how they advertise on Facebook. “You are hurting people. Would you agree with that statement?” he asked, to which Zuckerberg answered: “There are number of areas of content that we need to do a better job.”

McKinley then asked why Facebook allows posts from illegal online pharmacies to linger on the platform. Zuckerberg said that when people report posts, the platform takes them down. McKinley pressed: “Where’s your accountability?” Zuckerberg answered that, with billions of pieces of content every day, it’s hard even for his army of 20,000 content moderators to swiftly removed posts. Like during the Senate hearing, he emphasized the importance of AI solutions that the company is working on. Several other members brought up the opioid crisis, an epidemic that plagues many of their districts. “Don’t wait for someone to flag it. Look for it!” implored Kevin Cramer of North Dakota.

Unfavorable comparisons and “Diamond and Silk”

Congressman Bobby Rush, Democrat of Illinois, charged that Facebook could be compared to the COINTELPRO surveillance program run by the FBI in the 1960s. “What is the difference between Facebook’s methodology and the methodology of the American political pariah J. Edgar Hoover?” he asked. Zuckerberg said the difference was clear. “On Facebook you have control over your information,” he said. “I know of no surveillance organization that allows people to delete data.”

Another comparison was to the Truman Show, the 1998 movie starring Jim Carrey. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Republican from Tennessee, asked, “Who owns the virtual community, who owns your presence online?” Zuckerberg replied that the user owns their content. Blackburn pressed Zuckerberg on censorship, referencing “Diamond and Silk,” two pro-Trump sisters who said yesterday they were censored by the platform. After Zuckerberg gave his standard answer about banning harmful information on the platform, such as terrorist content, Blackburn fired back: “Diamond and Silk is not terrorism.” Several other Republican members brought up the same case.

Louisiana Republican Steve Scalise followed Blackburn’s line of questioning, and that of Sen. Ted Cruz in yesterday’s hearing, about bias against conservatives on the platform. He asked whether there was a directive to introduce bias into the new Facebook algorithm, basing his question on a study that indicated this prejudice exists. Zuckerberg denied any such directive.

Washington Republican Cathy McMorris Rodgers pressed the same issue. Zuckerberg answered that he was worried about bias and that he wanted the platform to serve everyone. Jeff Duncan of South Carolina insisted on giving Zuckerberg a copy of the US Constitution so that he remembered to respect freedom of speech on the platform.

Partisan rancor was evident during the hearing. Mississippi Republican Gregg Harper suggested that the Cambridge Analytica use of Facebook data was similar to that of the 2012 Obama campaign. “Shouldn’t people be equally outraged?” he asked.

Privacy and collecting user data

Gene Green, Texas Republican, got Zuckerberg to assure that Facebook would implement for American users the same controls and protections that are required for European users by the GDPR, a set of sweeping privacy regulations that will go into effect in May.

The GDPR also gives users the right to object to their personal data being used for marketing purposes, including microtargeting, Green said. “Will the same right to object be available to Facebook users in the US and how will that be implemented?”

“Congressman, I’m not sure how we’re going to implement that,” Zuckerberg said.

Vermont Republican Peter Welch asked whether Facebook would work with the US government to create GDPR-like legislation in the US, which Zuckerberg answered affirmatively.

California representative Paul Ruiz floated the idea of a Digital Consumer Protection Agency, which Zuckerberg said was worth considering.

Welch also asked: “Should consumers be able to correct or delete inaccurate personal data that companies have obtained?” Zuckerberg evaded the question, saying: “That one might be more interesting to debate.”

New Mexico Democrat Ben Lujan pressed Zuckerberg on what information Facebook had for people who were not on Facebook. The CEO answered that the company collects this information for security, but also evaded questions on how people could opt-out from this data being collected. Several times, the executive also avoided answering questions on whether Facebook tracks users while they are not logged into the platform (it does, and he made similar dodges yesterday).

Pallone asked whether Zuckerberg would commit to making the default settings on Facebook so as to minimize the collection of user data. Zuckerberg said the answer was a complex one, and deserves more than a one-word response.

Showing some of the more sophisticated understanding of Facebook’s practices, Democrat Joe Kennedy of Masachussets pressed Zuckerberg on ad targeting. Advertisers clearly have access to data, he said. Do advertisers use non-public data to target ads?

Facebook does not give them access to data, it helps them reach people, Zuckerberg said, adding that Facebook itself might use metadata or other types of information that is not evident on a user’s profile to help with targeting.

Oregon Democrat Kurt Schrader pushed Zuckerberg on the question of selling data, “You don’t sell data, but if others [Kogan] do aren’t you complicit?” He also asked how the company would enforce its prohibition on selling data. “Some of it is reports that we get, some of it is spot-checks, and going forward we are going to do more audits,” Zuckerberg replied.

“We might own our own data but once it’s used in advertising we lose control over it. Is that not right?” asked California representative Doris Matsui.

“I disagree with that because one core tenant of our ad platform is that advertisers don’t get access to our data. We don’t sell data,” Zuckerberg said. ”The business model is running ads. We use the data people put into the system to make the ads more relevant,” he said.

Republican Larry Bucsohn of Indiana brought up a rumor that Facebook’s ads are so accurate because the company is listening to people’s conversations via their microphones, which Facebook has denied, as had Zuckerberg during his Senate testimony.

Bucsohn asked whether Facebook was getting this information from other companies such as Amazon, which produces smart speaker Alexa. Zuckerberg vehemently denied this, and said he was not aware of such practices in the industry. As others have, Zuckerberg explained that this theory is explained by simple coincidence (a user may have spoken about a product, but they may have also looked for it online). What he did not say, however, is that the illusion persists because Facebook has so much information on every user.

On diversity

North Carolina’s G.K. Butterfield pressed the CEO on a lack of diversity in the company’s leadership, and Zuckerberg was defensive on the issue, but said the company was working on improving its diversity efforts.

Ashley Rodriguez contributed reporting.