Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified at a Congressional hearing today before 44 senators from the Senate’s Judiciary and Commerce committees. I hope his non-specific “team” is getting paid time-and-a-half, because from the sounds of Zuckerberg’s responses to Senator’s questions, they’re going to be doing an awful lot of following up.
Most of Zuckerberg’s responses were fairly predictable and mechanical. There were the references to how AI is going to help solve Facebook’s problems, references to Zuckerberg’s Harvard dorm room, and something about how Facebook needs to take a “broader view of responsibility” for its tools.
There were a few moments where Zuckerberg was firm in his responses. When Senator Schatz (D-Hawaii) asked him if anything he says while “emailing in WhatsApp” informs Facebook’s advertising, Zuckerberg responded in the negative. Senator Peters (D-Michigan) asked him if Facebook collected data via microphone audio, Zuckerberg’s response was a simple, “No.”
For most other inquiries, though, Zuckerberg either equivocated or gave a very general response. If you wanted to start a drinking game on Zuckerberg’s testimony — and I wouldn’t blame you, it’d take the edge off the boredom — the one phrase that might actually put you in the ground would be, “My team will follow up with you” or some variation on same.
When asked by Senator Nelson (D-Florida) why the company didn’t notify Facebook’s users when it first learned of Cambridge Analytica in 2015, Zuckerberg said:
When we heard back from Cambridge Analytica that they’d told us they weren’t using the data and had deleted it, we considered it a closed case. In retrospect, that was clearly a mistake.
Senator Thune (R-South Dakota) pointed out Zuckerberg’s history of making apology tours, and asked, “How is today’s apology different?”
To which Zuck responded:
For the first 10-12 years of the company, I viewed our responsibility as primarily building tools, and if we could put those tools in people’s hands, it would empower people to do good things. What I think we’ve learned now, across a number of issues — not just data privacy, but also fake news and foreign interference in elections — is that we need to take a more proactive role and a broader view of our responsibility.
For the most part, the questions weren’t terribly in-depth, and we learned little about Facebook that we didn’t already know. Zuckerberg replied to many questions with equivocation and calling on his team to follow up with more information.
There were a also few occasions when Zuckerberg seemed to be genuinely wrong-footed. Senator Durbin opened his remarks by asking Zuckerberg which hotel he stayed at the night before, and whether he’d be willing to disclose who he was messaging the night before. Both times, Zuckerberg said “no,” with a nervous giggle.
Durbin said he was making a point about privacy:
I think that may be what this is all about: Your right to privacy, and the limits of your right to privacy, and how much you give away in modern America in the name of ‘connecting people around the world.’
When Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) took his turn, he asked Zuckerberg if he was aware of organizations like Planned Parenthood or MoveOn having their ads taken down by Facebook. Zuckerberg responded in the negative. Cruz then asked why Oculus founder Palmer Luckey was fired, and Zuckerberg said he’d only affirm that it wasn’t because of politics.
The most hostile moment was when Senator Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) questioned Zuckerberg about whether or not he’d be willing to support legislation which would require FB to get permission from users before disseminating their information.
When asked by Markey specifically if there needed to be a “bill of rights” to protect young children on Facebook, Zuckerberg appeared to equivocate, then said, “I don’t think there needs to be a law.”
As Markey was directed to wrap up and the figurative baton was about to be passed, Zuckerberg smiled at the Senator and said, “I look forward to having my team follow up to flesh out the details of it.”