LESSONS

What we learned from Mark Zuckerberg’s Congressional testimony

After a long week, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is done with the first round of his face-off with Congress.

He heard some challenging questions, and some admonitions, but overall, the Washington tour went well for the 33-year-old executive. With no major stumbles, the stock market—currently the most important check on his company’s power—responded favorably to his performance.

Several new pieces of information came out of the two Congressional hearings (here’s our coverage from the Senate and the House). But perhaps more importantly, we saw how lawmakers think about Facebook, how the company wants to present itself, and what Zuckerberg did not want to say.

What’s new?

  • Zuckerberg indicated that he would be open to several ideas for regulating the tech industry. With his now-famous caveat “my team will follow up with you on this” the CEO said he was not opposed to a rule suggested by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Democrat from Minnesota, that users should be notified within 72 hours that their privacy had been breached—a provision in upcoming European privacy regulations.
  • He confirmed that his company was cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
  • Zuckerberg said his own data was accessed by Cambridge Analytica, the consulting firm used by Donald Trump’s campaign that improperly accessed the information of 87 million Facebook users.
  • He said that Aleksandr Kogan, the researcher who sold the data to Cambridge Analytica, also sold it to a “handful” of other companies.

Lawmakers

While there were plenty of questions left unanswered, one thing became very clear during the 10-hour grilling of Zuckerberg: US lawmakers remain unwilling or unable to forcefully push laws to protect Americans’ data privacy, much less attempt to make the company that earned $16 billion in profit last year radically rethink its business model, even after it was weaponized by Russians to influence the US election.

With just a five minute limit in the Senate and four in the House, and a global audience, some of the questioning was bound to be political grandstanding and theatrics. What was surprising was how little was anything more than that.

Several senators on Tuesday seemed perplexed by how, exactly, the company works, asking about the sale of data, for example. There were multiple questions on how to increase user privacy settings—a worthy subject, to be sure, but also one that could be determined without the help of the cofounder and CEO. “What is Facemash, and is it still running?,” asked Billy Coons, the House representative from Missouri, about the early Facebook prototype Zuckerberg built.

Academics, journalists, and data privacy experts have been digging deep into some of the company’s problematic business practices, but the Senate Judiciary Committee, with the full resources of the US intelligence community at its command, seemed to have done little more than read the headlines.

When they did ask questions that got to the root of Facebook’s problems, there was little follow-through.

“Why do you shift the burden to users to flag inappropriate content and make sure it’s taken down?,” asked Senator Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat. Zuckerberg’s answer was, essentially “because I built it in my door room.” That was, however, 15 years ago, and there wasn’t any probing on why the massively profitable company remains so passive in policing content.

Lawmakers are unlikely to favor heavy regulation, thanks in part to Facebook’s lobbying cash and the anti-regulatory climate of Washington right now, but some lawmakers touted their bills nonetheless, while others warned that the climate was shifting. “In the past, many of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle have been willing to defer to tech companies’ efforts to regulate themselves,” said John Thune, the Republican senator from South Dakota. “But this may be changing.”

Here too, though, it was as if they were asking Zuckerberg for approval rather than serving as the US’s law-making body.

Zuckerberg will support the Honest Ads Act, which makes social media platforms disclose the source of political ad funding, but he seemed less inclined to back Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey’s “Consent Act,” which requires users to opt-in to data sharing. House members also discussed a Data Consumer Protection Bureau, which Zuckerberg seemed to support. Several asked Zuckerberg to rewrite Facebook’s user agreement to make the terms easier to understand.

As always, there were plenty of politics. Several Republican Congress members, including Texas Senator Ted Cruz, used their time to grill Zuckerberg about whether he and his team were discriminating against conservative media outlets and voices, repeatedly pointing to an enforcement action against conservative vloggers Diamond and Silk.

Zuckerberg and Facebook

Before the hearings began, Quartz spoke to a congressional investigations expert, who outlined phrases, behaviors and answers that Zuckerberg would be getting drilled on by his own team in preparation. The executive followed the playbook: he was calm, didn’t let his emotions get in the way, and didn’t answer questions that he didn’t have a good response to. This ended up having an almost comical effect as he dodged questions left and right, but, from a PR and legal perspective, he (likely) did what he was supposed to. During the House testimony, where the lawmakers were less deferential and had a stricter time limit for questions, he fared worse. The members frequently cut him off and schooled him, asking somewhat tougher questions than the senators.

The content of his answers revealed several things. For one, it was clear what he wanted to avoid being upfront about. He didn’t want to disclose just how invasive Facebook is, evading answers about the platform’s tracking practices for people who are logged off, or not signed up at all. He wanted to present a certain story of Facebook, emphasizing its humble origins in his Harvard dorm room, which came off as sort of an excuse for the company’s wrongdoings. “We made mistakes, and we’re learning from them,” has been the company mantra over the last several weeks.

It also seemed that some of the questions left Zuckerberg legitimately stumped. Of course no one can expect the CEO to know all the details about his company, but his ignorance on some matters will only fuel questions over his ability to run such a powerful company. It also illustrates just how hard Facebook is to fully grasp for anyone, even its founder.

What we also glimpsed is Facebook’s thinking about solutions to its many problems. Zuckerberg, who admitted that even hiring 20,000 content moderators, which the company constantly touts, is not enough to police billions of pieces of content every day. His solution? Artificial intelligence. But as Quartz’s Dave Gershgorn writes, no one should be taking the promise of AI at face value. That’s especially the case when it comes to hate speech, a nuanced problem that machines cannot fully comprehend. As Gershgorn puts it, “there will always likely be tough, situational decisions that humans will have to make.”

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