WASHINGTON – Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg repeatedly expressed contrition in a high-profile congressional hearing Tuesday that featured complaints that went far beyond how the social network has handled the data of tens of millions of Americans.
Senators from both parties aggressively questioned Zuckerberg in his first ever public appearance in front of Congress over recent controversies – from data privacy to Russian disinformation. They demanded new detail about how Facebook collects and uses data and elicited assurances that it will implement major improvements in protecting personal privacy. The threat of greater regulation – not just of Facebook, but of the entire technology industry – hung over the first of two days of congressional hearings.
“If Facebook and other online companies will not or cannot fix these privacy invasions, then we will,” said Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, the highest-ranking Democrat on the Commerce Committee. The Tuesday event was a rare joint hearing before two Senate panels – the Commerce and Judiciary committees – meeting in joint session, with as many as 44 senators set to question the Facebook executive.
Zuckerberg, who traded his trademark T-shirts and hoodies for the standard Capitol Hill suit-and-tie garb, sought to quell the concerns of lawmakers and vowed to make meaningful reforms.
“It’s clear now that we didn’t do enough to prevent these tools from being used for harm as well,” Zuckerberg said at the Senate hearing. “And that goes for fake news, foreign interference in elections, and hate speech, as well as developers and data privacy.”
Zuckerberg, who has long avoided wading into Washington affairs, took responsibility for the missteps. “We didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibility, and that was a big mistake. And it was my mistake, and I’m sorry. I started Facebook, I run it, and I’m responsible for what happens here.”
The exchanges between the 33-year-old billionaire and lawmakers were often tense. But Zuckerberg also caused spectators to laugh when he turned down an opportunity for a break, saying he could keep answering questions for 15 more minutes before stopping. Facebook’s inability to identify and combat Russian disinformation during the 2016 presidential campaign one of Zuckerberg’s “biggest regrets,” he said. “One of my top priorities in 2018 is getting this right.”
He also confirmed that Facebook officials have been interviewed by officials from Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who has been investigating Russia’s role in influencing the 2016 election. “I know we are working with them,” said Zuckerberg.
Zuckerberg’s acknowledgments of responsibility punctuated an extraordinary shift in tone for him and the company he co-founded in his Harvard dorm room in 2004. After years of recurrent privacy controversies and official apologies, Zuckerberg has strained in recent weeks to convince lawmakers, users and regulators that Facebook is determined to deliver meaningful change. The House Energy and Commerce Committee has its own hearing scheduled for Wednesday morning.
The senators did not seem appeased by Zuckerberg’s several apologies, acknowledgements and vows to do better in the future. Several asked for detailed answers about how private, third-party companies, such as the political consultancy Cambridge Analytica, gained access to personal data on 87 million Facebook users, including 71 million Americans.
Others questioned whether the very business model of Facebook — which makes money by selling online advertisements based on what it learns about users on the platform — was flawed.
“Mr. Zuckerberg, in many ways you and the company that you’ve created, the story you’ve created, represent the American Dream,” said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., chairman of the Commerce Committee. “Many are incredibly inspired by what you’ve done. At the same time, you have an obligation, and it’s up to you, to ensure that dream doesn’t become a privacy nightmare for the scores of people who use Facebook.”
On several occasions, Zuckerberg responded to detailed questions by saying that “his team” would report back later with specific answers. But on the subject of Facebook’s business model, Zuckerberg took on the question directly, arguing that by relying on advertising revenue, Facebook could reach far more users than otherwise possible.
“We want to offer a free service that everyone can afford. That’s the only way we can connect billions of people… and is most aligned with our mission of connecting everyone in the world,” he said.
In a pointed exchange, Sen. Lindsay Graham asked Zuckerberg whether he agreed with a 2016 memo written by Facebook Vice President Andrew Bosworth, a longtime Zuckerberg deputy, which appeared to suggest that bad outcomes, include bullying and even death, that can be facilitated by Facebook’s platform, were a necessary part of the company’s mission to connect the world.
At first, Zuckerberg tried to sidestep the question, saying that most people at the company didn’t agree with the memo. The senator shot back, saying, “If somebody who said this worked for me, I’d fire him.” Zuckerberg replied that he believes it’s important to create a work environment where people feel free to speak their minds.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, said, “We’ve seen the apology tours before. . . I don’t see how you can change your business model unless there are different rules of the road.”
In one of the most contentious exchanges of the afternoon, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, accused Facebook of a “pervasive pattern of political bias” against conservatives. Zuckerberg disputed the allegation, saying he worked to prevent such bias despite acknowledging that Silicon Valley was “an extremely left-leaning place.”
Facebook’s stock price, which had fallen sharply in recent weeks as the latest controversies built, rose sharply in trading Tuesday, ending the day up 4.5 percent.
Hours ahead of the hearing, spectators lined up along the walls of the Hart Senate Office Building, snaking from the 138-seat hearing room on the second floor. Inside, Facebook aides including Elliot Schrage, the company’s vice president of communications and public policy, bided time by making the rounds with reporters, a day after the social network’s lobbyists shuttled Zuckerberg to the offices of lawmakers.
To account for the expanded roster of members attending the hearing – two committees, almost half of the entire Senate – congressional staffers added an extra table to the dais. In front, more than two dozen photographers assembled early to snap photos of Zuckerberg when he arrived at the witness table.
One attendee was dressed as a Russian troll — in a scout-like uniform with fake troll hair as a hat, and a scarf that resembled a Russian flag. Three other people at the hearing rose before Zuckerberg entered to protest. Wearing neon-colored, oversized glasses that red “stop spying,” they displayed poster boards — labeled Code Pink — that read “stop corporate spying” and “protect our privacy” and “Like us on Facebook.”
The most recent controversies, involving the ease with which a political consultancy and other outsiders collected data on many of Facebook’s 2.2 billion users, has generated a rare level of bipartisan consensus about the power of social media to twist public discourse and jeopardize the functioning of democracies. Many lawmakers – Republicans and Democrats – are calling for new legislation, fines or greater regulation.
Outside, on the Capitol’s grassy lawn, 100 life-size cutouts of Zuckerberg sported T-shirts saying, “fix fakebook” – the work of an advocacy group, Avaaz, trying to call attention to how fake accounts spread disinformation on the social network.
Zuckerberg, who had tried to avoid such a potentially fractious public encounter on Capitol Hill, already had made clear his desire to project contrition and a willingness to undertake reform, even endorsing legislation mandating new level of transparency for political advertising online. But lawmakers from both parties are contemplating more aggressive legislative moves that could restrict what tech companies collect data and how they use it.
Democratic Sen. Edward Markey, Mass., plans to introduce a new bill Tuesday called the CONSENT Act that would require social giants like Facebook and other major web platforms to obtain explicit consent before they share or sell personal data.
Lawmakers also have expressed interest in broadening their inquiry to other technology companies, including Google and Twitter. But this week’s focus will be sharpest on Facebook.
The company has been reeling since the November 2016 election during which phony news reports spread widely on its platform and Russian operatives mounted an ambitious campaign to divide American voters, damage Democrat Hillary Clinton and bolster the chances of Republican Donald Trump.
Facebook appeared to be recovering from those controversies until last month’s revelation that Cambridge Analytica, a political consultancy hired by Trump and other Republicans, improperly gained access to data on 87 million Facebook users, including 71 million Americans. The company acknowledged last week a separate problem in which “malicious actors” were able to identify and collect data on Facebook users on such a massive scale that most of the company’s 2.2 billion users were affected.
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