Highlights of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's testimony to Congress
"The days of 'trust me' for Mark Zuckerberg are over."
Notoriously camera-shy Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was grilled by senators from both parties Tuesday over issues involving data security and Russian meddling that have plagued the social media giant much of the past year.
The hearings were prompted by the recent issues involving Cambridge Analytica, a consulting firm linked to President Trump's 2016 election campaign that harvested data from an estimated 87 million Facebook users. Lawmakers also asked Zuckerberg about the company's slow response to false stories and Russia's use of the social media platform to interfere with the 2016 election.
Early in the hearing, senators were mocked on social media for their apparent lack of understanding about Facebook and the underlying issues impacting its users.
"Some of these questions are giving me strong flashbacks to 2009, watching Congress grill bank execs about credit default swaps without really understanding what they were saying," New York Times tech reporter Kevin Roose wrote on Twitter. "This hearing is embarrassing," wrote former Obama speechwriter Jon Lovett.
Here are some highlights from the hearing.
‘Your user agreement sucks’
Sen. John Kennedy (R., La.) told Zuckerberg that Facebook's user agreement needs to be rewritten so the average American can understand it.
No questions about Facebook’s Newsfeed
Entering the second break of the hearing, not a single senator asked Zuckerberg about the most important feature of Facebook – the powerful algorithm that powers the Newsfeed, where content is served to users.
The company keeps the parameters of how the algorithm works under tight security, and tweaks it often, most recently earlier this year when it made the controversial decision to de-emphasize news content.
Sen. Gary Peters (D., Mich.) came the closest to asking Zuckerberg a question about the platform's timeline, but instead pivoted to ask whether Facebook mines data from audio obtained from mobile devices.
"We don't do that," Zuckerberg flatly stated.
Booker presses Zuckerberg about racial discrimination
Sen. Corey Booker (D., N.J.) pressed Zuckerberg about the platform's role in discrimination against minorities, specifically when it comes to housing ads, and the Facebook CEO agreed that self-reporting isn't the best way to hold third-parties accountable.
"In this case, I'm not happy where we are," Zuckerberg admitted, once again pointing to the overwhelming amount of content that needs to be policed.
Booker also proposed allowing Facebook to open up its platform to civil rights organizations to audit for discrimination, a noble idea but one that underscores the complexity of the problems the network faces.
Zuckerberg confronted over fake profiles
Sen. Chris Coons (D., Del.), who worked with Facebook Tuesday morning to remove a fake profile, confronted Zuckerberg over the point that most of the platform's billions of users don't garner the immediate response afforded to a sitting U.S. senator.
"Isn't it Facebook's job to better protect its users and why do you shift the burden to users to flag inappropriate content and make sure it is taken down?" Coons asked Zuckerberg.
Zuckerberg's response was largely evasive, stating (once again) that Facebook was launched in his Harvard dorm room with limited resources, and admitted it's difficult handing the "sheer volume of content" on the platform.
"I think it's clear this is an area … we need to do a lot better on," Zuckerberg said.
Zuckerberg added that in the future, AI technology would be responsible for flagging and dealing with problematic content.
Here’s who’s sitting behind Zuckerberg
On social media, there's a lot of curiosity about the people sitting behind Zuckerberg during today's hearing. According to a Facebook spokesperson:
On the left: Joel Kaplan, vice president of global policy
On the right: Myriah Jordan, public policy director
Both Kaplan and Jordan served in the administration of President George W. Bush. Kaplan was the White House deputy chief of staff for policy, while Jordan served as a White House aide. She also served as general counsel to Sen. Richard Burr (R., N.C.).
Cruz presses Facebook over political bias
Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas) pressed Zuckerberg over the idea that Facebook is biased against conservatives, citing a recent issue involving two pro-Trump sisters known as "Diamond and Silk" who appear often on Fox News.
The two women, whose real names are Lynette Hardaway and Rochelle Richardson, claim Facebook limited the reach of their videos and labeled their videos "unsafe to the community." Facebook has acknowledged it sent the message, but clarified that it was "inaccurate and not reflective of the way we communicate with our community."
"To a great many Americans that appears to be persuasive pattern of political bias, do you agree with this?" Cruz asked Zuckerberg.
Zuckerberg said he understands Cruz's concern, especially because Facebook is located in Silicon Valley, which the CEO described as "an extremely left-leaning place." But he said as a platform and a company, Facebook doesn't have any political bias in the work it does.
"We consider ourselves to be a platform for all ideas," Zuckerberg responded.
Edward Snowden calls out Zuckerberg
During his testimony to Congress, Zuckerberg dodged a question about whether Facebook tracks the browsing activity of users after they log off from the platform (for the record, they do).
Zuckerberg's evasive answer didn't sit well with Edward Snowden, the former CIA employee now living in an undisclosed location in Russia who is best known for leaking classified information from the NSA to The Guardian and The Washington Post.
Zuckerberg won’t share the name of this hotel
A funny but telling exchange between Zuckerberg and Sen. Richard Durbin (D., Ill.):
‘Who’s your biggest competitor?’
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) confronted Zuckerberg with the most pointed question of the hearing, pressing him on whether he considers a Facebook a monopoly.
"If I buy a Ford, and it doesn't work well and I don't like it I can buy a Chevy. If I'm upset with Facebook, what's the equivalent product I can sign up for?" Graham said, noting car companies face significant competition in the marketplace, which forces them to focus on quality.
This back-and-forth between Graham and Zuckerger was particularly interesting:
Graham: "Is there an alternative to Facebook in the private sector?"
Zuckerberg: "Yes, senator. The average American uses eight different apps to communicate with their friends and stay in touch with people."
Graham: "Which is the same service you provide?"
Zuckerberg: "Well we provide a number of different services."
Graham: "Is Twitter the same as what you do?"
Zuckerberg: "It overlaps with a portion of what we do."
Graham: "You don't think you have a monopoly?"
Zuckerberg: "It certainly doesn't feel like that to me."
‘Senator, we sell ads’
Zuckerberg explains Facebook's business model to a confused Sen, Orrin Hatch (R., Ut.):
‘You’re not allowed to have a fake account on Facebook’
Answering a question by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.), Zuckerberg said Facebook doesn't allow the type of fake accounts Russia used to influence the 2016 president election (Here's what fake Russian Facebook posts during the election looked like).
Zuckerberg said Facebook has built tools to attempt to combat fake accounts, and highlighted the platform's removal of 270 fake accounts tied to the Russian "troll factory" Internet Research Agency. But that pales in comparison to the estimated 270 million fake Facebook accounts the company admitted existed in November.
As IJR's Josh Billinson pointed out:
Zuckerberg can’t say how many apps have misused data
Responding to a question by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R. Iowa), Zuckerberg said he didn't know how many other Facebook apps misused users' data, citing ongoing internal investigations involving "tens of thousands of apps."
Zuckerberg added that apps that the company found misused user data would be banned from the platform, but didn't provide any specifics on how many companies have been removed Facebook.
Zuckerberg admits Facebook has failed
In prepared opening remarks read to begin his testimony, Zuckerberg took full responsibility for the mistakes Facebook has made in recent years and admitted the company had failed to protect the privacy of its users.
"It's clear now that we didn't do enough to prevent these tools from being used for harm as well. That goes for fake news, foreign interference in elections, and hate speech, as well as developers and data privacy," Zuckerberg said. "We didn't take a broad enough view of our responsibility, and that was a big mistake. It was my mistake, and I'm sorry,"
Zuckerberg held mock hearings
Zuckerberg and his team held mock hearings last week in a conference room at Facebook set up to look like a congressional hearing room, according to a report by CNN.
"He's nervous, but he's really confident," a source told CNN's Seth Fiegerman. "He's a smart guy."
Hearing opens with focus on Facebook’s size
In his opening remarks, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R. Iowa), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, called Facebook "unique" due to its digital size and reach as he announced 44 senators would get four minutes each to question Zuckerberg.
"That may not seem seem like a large group by Facebook standards, but it is significant for the U.S. Senate," Grassley said.
Zuckerberg in the spotlight
After a 20 minute delay, Zuckerberg's testimony is about to begin.
A ‘Russian troll’ in attendance
Zuckerberg posts on Facebook as he heads into the Capitol
"In an hour I'm going to testify in front of the Senate about how Facebook needs to take a broader view of our responsibility — not just to build tools, but to make sure those tools are used for good," Zuckerberg wrote. "I will do everything I can to make Facebook a place where everyone can stay closer with the people they care about, and to make sure it's a positive force in the world."
A booster seat for Zuckerberg?
Washingtonian photographer Evy Mages noticed something interesting about Zuckerberg's chair ahead of his hearing:
It the first time Zuckerberg will appear before Congress to answer questions about the popular social media platform. Tuesday's testimony will be offered before a joint hearing conducted by the Senate Judiciary and Commerce committees. According to the New York Times, Zuckerberg shouldn't expect a quick afternoon: 44 senators are expected to participate in Tuesday's hearing, and each has been promised four minutes of questioning.
He will appear again on Wednesday at 10 a.m. to testify in front of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
What it means
"This moment for Mark Zuckerberg is like High Noon, it's a moment of reckoning for Facebook for its business model," Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.), who will be among the senators questioning the 33-year-old tech icon, said on MSNBC's Morning Joe Tuesday morning. "The days of 'trust me' for Mark Zuckerberg are over. The apology tour and the contrition sonata I think have worked only so far now."