WASHINGTON, April 10, 2018 – After months of seemingly-unending scandal over his company’s role in the 2018 election, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg began his first of two days of testimony on Capitol Hill Tuesday by making it clear he was well aware of the laundry list of problems with the company he created 14 years ago in his Harvard dorm room.
“It’s clear now that we didn’t do enough to prevent these tools from being used for harm as well,” Zuckerberg said while speaking at a rare joint hearing of the Senate Commerce and Judiciary committees. “And that goes for fake news, foreign interference in elections and hate speech, as well as developers and data privacy.”
The 33-year-old CEO, who swapped his trademark hoodie and dark t-shirt for a suit and tie during his first appearance on Capitol Hill – a venue he’d managed to avoid during years of smaller controversies over the company he founded – continued with something else not usually associated with him or Facebook: an apology.
“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.”
Facebook officials spoke with office of Special Counsel Robert Mueller
He also made some news as he confirmed once again that Facebook employees have spoken with investigators working for Special Counsel Robert Mueller, whose office has been charged with looking into Russia’s efforts during the 2016 campaign and determining whether or not that interferences was aided by Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
I know we’re working with them,” Zuckerberg said while declining to go into detail, citing confidentiality rules surrounding the investigation. He said that he had not been interviewed by Mueller or his team, however.
Over the course of more than four hours, Zuckerberg disappointed anyone hoping for a crack-up or a break in his composure as he fielded questions from 42 senators, invoking his company’s only-in-America origins to defend its frequently tone-deaf actions on privacy and its history-making failure in spotting and stopping efforts by Russia – and perhaps the Trump campaign -- to manipulate American voters during the last presidential election.
While Zuckerberg told senators his company offered the Trump campaign the same assistance it would offer any customer, called the failure to stop Russia one of his “biggest regrets,” noting that getting the 2018 election right is one of his “top priorities” for this year.
While shareholders lauded Zuckerberg’s performance by driving Facebook’s stock price up by close of business Tuesday, many senators were not impressed.
Facebook’s history is dotted with apology after apology
Commerce committee chairman John Thune, R-S.D., noted Facebook’s history is dotted with apology after apology for what he euphemistically called “ill-advised decisions” on privacy matters.
“How is today’s apology different?” Thune asked.
Florida Senator Bill Nelson – the highest ranking Democrat on the Commerce Committee -- promised action if Zuckerberg and his company fail to adequately tackle the problems posed by Facebook.
“If Facebook and other online companies will not or cannot fix these privacy invasions, then we will,” Nelson said.
Promoting new approaches to regulation on social media
Several Democrats took the opportunity to plug bills they’ve sponsored to impose some regulation on Facebook and other social media companies that make heavy use of user data, and while Republicans have yet to sponsor any, several said that could change.
Senator Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., wanted to know if Zuckerberg would be willing to work with lawmakers in order to look at what “regulations you think are necessary in your industry.”
“Absolutely,” Zuckerberg said.
He later told Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, that he is “not the type of person who thinks that all regulation is bad.”
For the most part Zuckerberg’s response in the face of questioning was contrite, as he acknowledged that he and his colleagues “have made a lot of mistakes,” while promising to work harder in the future.
Sen. Ted Cruz tackles Zuckerberg over ‘political censorship’ at Facebook
Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas, used his time for questions to grill Zuckerberg over about “political censorship” at Facebook.
Cruz cited an incident documented by GotNews.com, a conspiracy-focused site which claimed Facebook employees kept “conservative stories” out of Facebook’s trending topics list. The site suggested Facebook had blocked content from Diamond and Silk, a pair of African-American pro-Trump commentators who often appear on Fox News, and that Facebook fired Oculus founder Palmer Luckey because of their political beliefs.
In 2014 Facebook purchased Oculus VR, a virtual reality company.
Responding to Cruz’s question about Luckey – who gained some fame in conservative circles for purchasing a billboard suggesting Hillary Clinton be jailed – Zuckerberg denied bias had anything to do with his departure from the company and said the reason was not one that could be discussed in an open setting.
Other senators, however, appeared uncomfortable discussing technology-related topics, and were clearly reading questions that had been given to them by staff. Senators asked few follow-ups and Zuckerberg was able to deflect aggressive questioning by promising senators his lobbying team – which came with him in force by filling the rows of seats behind him – would get back to them.
No consensus yet on the need to regulate Facebook
Response to Zuckerberg’s testimony from outside the Capitol was not indicative of a consensus from both ends of the regulatory policy spectrum when it comes to the need for some regulation of Facebook and similar companies.
“Facebook clearly dropped the ball here, and some governmental response is justified, but Congress must resist the urge to pass knee-jerk legislation,” Berin Szóka, president of TechFreedom, a libertarian-leaning think tank, said in a letter to members of Congress. “At a minimum, the FTC may be justified in concluding that Facebook’s failure to notify users about Cambridge Analytica’s misuse of Facebook data constituted deception by ‘material omission.’”
Allie Bohm, privacy counsel at Public Knowledge, a consumer advocacy group that generally supports greater regulation of technology companies, appeared to disagree with Szoka’s assessment.
“In the twenty-first century, it is impossible to meaningfully participate in society without sharing our personal information with third parties. These third-party companies and platforms should have commensurate obligations to protect our personal information,” Bohm said.
“Unfortunately, it has become increasingly clear that too many third parties fail to live up to this responsibility.”
“This hearing is a good start to begin addressing corporate collection and use of user data in the modern economy. But, a hearing alone is not enough. We hope that the Committees will use this hearing to build the record for strong, comprehensive privacy legislation.”
Zuckerberg continued his Capitol Hill testimony on Wednesday, April 11, before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.