Mark Zuckerberg Tries To Explain The Internet To Elderly Senators
Not surprisingly, a joint Senate Committee failed to really lay a glove on Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at yesterday's hearing.
Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg appeared before a joint Senate Committee yesterday regarding the ongoing controversies surrounding his company, it’s role in efforts to influence that outcome of the 2016 General Election and broader issues of online privacy. While the hearings were widely anticipated they were, as such events nearly always are, entirely unproductive, useless, and unlikely to result in any constructive action whatsoever:
WASHINGTON — Outside the Capitol Building on Tuesday sat dozens of cardboard cutouts depicting Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Facebook, wearing a characteristic T-shirt emblazoned with the message “Fix Fakebook.”
Inside, clad in a navy suit and bright blue tie, Mr. Zuckerberg appeared before the Senate Commerce and Judiciary committees as he really is: the billionaire leader of one of the world’s most powerful commercial and civic enterprises.
Mr. Zuckerberg’s appearance, his first before Congress, turned into something of a pointed gripe session, with both Democratic and Republican senators attacking Facebook for failing to protect users’ data and stop Russian election interference, and raising questions about whether Facebook should be more heavily regulated. Of specific interest were the revelations that sensitive data of as many as 87 million Facebook users were harvested without explicit permission by a political consulting firm, Cambridge Analytica, which was connected to the Trump campaign.
Mr. Zuckerberg, 33, appeared confident and answered questions directly, and his performance helped bolster Facebook’s stock, which ended the day up 4.5 percent. It was the first of two marathon hearings; the second will be before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday.
He was forced to admit mistakes and take responsibility for his company’s actions — as have the many tobacco, pharmaceutical and bank executives who have been summoned to Washington.
“I think it’s pretty much impossible, I believe, to start a company in your dorm room and then grow it to be at the scale that we’re at now without making some mistakes,” Mr. Zuckerberg said.
Senator Richard Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, zeroed in on the central issue of the hearing, asking Mr. Zuckerberg whether he would be comfortable sharing aloud the name of the hotel where he stayed on Monday night, or whether he would be comfortable sharing the names of the people he has messaged this week.
“No. I would probably not choose to do that publicly here,” Mr. Zuckerberg said.
“I think that may be what this is all about,” Mr. Durbin said. “Your right to privacy. The limits of your right to privacy. And how much you give away in modern America in the name of, quote, connecting people around the world.”
Mr. Zuckerberg was the only technology chief in the room, but he was often treated as a stand-in for the whole industry. Facebook has come under intense criticism for the Cambridge Analytica leak and for its initial response, which set off a #DeleteFacebook campaign online and sent the stock plunging more than 15 percent.
But the hearing was about more than Facebook; it exposed a critical turning point as the power, sophistication and potential exploitation of technology outpaces what users, regulators or even its creators expected or seem prepared to handle.
The moment is creating a showdown between two national power centers — Washington and Silicon Valley — as they jockey in a technology-centric world. Although Washington has long served as a check on the power of Wall Street and other profitable industries, lawmakers have tended to act as cheerleaders for technology companies rather than watchdogs. Light regulation enabled a culture of freewheeling innovation, and the beloved products that Silicon Valley companies created made them politically convenient allies.
Today, five of the eight largest companies in the world are West Coast technology companies. Only a single East Coast institution, JPMorgan Chase, cracks the top 10. And lawmakers on both sides of the aisle suggested that Facebook and other companies may not be able to police themselves.
“Have you gotten too big?” Senator Dan Sullivan, Republican of Alaska, asked Mr. Zuckerberg, before suggesting that Facebook might need to be reined in to protect it from itself.
Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, pressed Mr. Zuckerberg on whether Facebook had become a monopoly, asking why Congress “should let you self-regulate?”
Mr. Zuckerberg said he welcomed some form of regulation, as long as it was the “right regulation.” He also expressed support for the Honest Ads Act, a bill in Congress that would require more disclosures from online political advertisers.
His answers did not mollify lawmakers, including Mr. Graham, who said in a statement after the hearing that “continued self-regulation is not the right answer when it comes to dealing with the abuses we have seen on Facebook.”
Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, said in an interview that he was “unsatisfied” and that it was clear Facebook could not and would not fully regulate itself and that Congress needed to provide a solution.
“The old saying: There ought to be a law,” he said. “There has to be a law. Unless there’s a law, their business model is going to continue to maximize profit over privacy.”
Mr. Zuckerberg’s appearance before more than 40 senators came after weeks of preparation, and it appeared to pay off, as he seemed calm, deferential and prepared. Mr. Zuckerberg offered humor about the company’s onetime mantra: “move fast and break things.” (It has since been edited to “move fast with stable infrastructure.”) He insisted on continuing questions when offered a break, eliciting smiles and laughter from staff sitting behind him. However, when Mr. Zuckerberg did take a break, he left behind his notes, which were quickly photographed and contained talking points for various topics including “Defend Facebook,” “Disturbing Content” and “Election integrity (Russia).”
His performance won accolades on Wall Street. “This is a different Mark Zuckerberg than the Street was fearing,” said Daniel Ives, chief strategy officer and head of technology research for GBH Insights in New York. “It’s a defining 48 hours that will determine the future of Facebook, and so far he has passed with flying colors, and the Street is relieved.”
But Mr. Zuckerberg acknowledged that his idealistic view of humanity, and those of his fellow executives, had exposed Facebook’s roughly 2.2 billion users to danger. Among them: Facebook failed to detect and stop Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, an oversight that Mr. Zuckerberg called “one of my greatest regrets.”
There were glimmers of a partisan divide during the hearing. Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, asked about Facebook’s handling of conservative media, including content related to Glenn Beck and a Fox News personality; Democrats questioned Mr. Zuckerberg on how quickly Facebook responded to Russian meddling in the election.
But the dominant theme of the day was uncertainty about how to deal with Facebook, a complex, multifaceted giant that even technologists have struggled to define. Lawmakers — many of whom grew up in an era without social media — labored at times to understand the fine-grain nuances of Facebook’s business model, such as the difference between selling user data to advertisers and allowing advertisers to target ads to an aggregated slice of Facebook users. At one point, Mr. Zuckerberg was forced to shoot down a conspiracy theory floated by Gary Peters, Democrat of Michigan, that Facebook listens to users through their microphones in order to serve them ads.
I admittedly did not watch all five hours of Zuckerberg’s appearance before the unusual joint committee hearing, and most of the cable networks drifted away from airing it live after an hour or two once it became clear that the Senators were mostly grandstanding for the cameras and that the Facebook CEO was coming across as well-prepared, contrite for the errors he admits the company he started in his Harvard dorm room as a way to meet girls made as it grew rapidly to a community comprising 2/7ths of the world’s population, and even at times sympathetic and patient under questioning that was often hard to follow. Indeed, as several people noted on Twitter, at times it reminded one of being the youngest person at a family reunion trying to explain the Internet to the older relatives. Because of that, and because Zuckerberg had obviously been well-prepared by his advisers and company attorneys, anyone who had either hopes or fears that yesterday’s hearing or the one that will take place this morning before a House Committee would result in some kind of epic meltdown by the ordinarily reclusive and hard-to-reach CEO were either disappointed or pleased by the outcome of the event.
I haven’t written much of anything about the ongoing Facebook story here at OTB, largely because it’s one of those things that it’s been hard to put into a neat box, and certainly not an issue that there is an easy answer to. Anyone who has been online and using social media knows, or at least should know, that the data they share online is “out there” and is going to be seen by others, whether it’s via a Google search or by access to your Facebook, Twitter, or other social media feeds. If you don’t want people to know certain things about you, then either you shouldn’t share them at all, or you should educate yourself sufficiently to know how to set privacy settings on the sites you do use to control who gets to see the things that you share. In my case, I’m generally fairly open about what I share for several reasons. For one thing, I’ve been online in one form or another for so long now that searches for my name will reveal all kinds of information, good and bad, and it’s not like I can hide been the relative protection of a common name that would make it harder to find me. That’s the price we pay for living on the Internet, and it’s also the price we pay for using social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Additionally, though, I have most of my privacy settings set to “public” because I use social media outlets to promote my writing and at least to try to discuss issues in a civil manner with people I disagree with, sadly that has become harder and harder over recent years but these services are still useful tools for people who follow, work in or write about politics.
Notwithstanding all of that, the recent revelations about Facebook data being shared with outlets such as Cambridge Analytica and other companies that then used it to serve up political ads and generate false reports that spread quickly throughout the Facebook community and elsewhere are concerning. Also of concern is the extent to which the data that people routinely share can be accessed by others and the fact that most people probably don’t realize the extent to which they are opening their lives up to others, and not just to the people they are “friends” with on social media. In that regard, Facebook, Twitter, and other companies in the same line of business can and should do a much better job of giving their users the tools they need to do that, and a better explanation of what all those sometimes hard to understand privacy policies actually mean. In some cases, that may mean passing legislation beefing up privacy protections, but for the most part it’s going to be up to the companies themselves, and to users who clearly need to become better educated about how the way they act online is reflecting on them in the world as it has become in the Internet age.