Thursday 22nd November 2018

Senate hearing: Zuckerberg barely breaks a sweat while politicians and journalists enjoy their day at the theater

Jason Smith
by on 11th April 2018

On Tuesday, Mark Zuckerberg appeared before a joint hearing of the Senate Commerce and Judiciary committees.

The earliest moments of the hearing were perhaps indicative of what was to come, as Zuckerberg cast a lonely figure while surrounded by upwards of 50 DSLRs all vying for the perfect angle.

Perhaps the most pertinent comment of the afternoon came late in the Hearing from Senator Johnson, who proclaimed “So it’s kind of safe to say that Facebook users don’t seem to be overly concerned about all these revelations, although obviously Congress apparently is”.

Senator Johnson’s comment followed his earlier question on whether Facebook had witnessed any “dramatic fall-off in the number of people who utilize Facebook because of these concerns,” to which Zuckerberg responded “[it] has not”.

Throughout the hearing it was difficult to get past the notion that this was more a day for the press and politicians, rather than any meaningful investigation into what’s happened at Facebook and why it matters, or should matter, to the public.

It was also difficult to identify what the hearing was actually about.

From its terms of service, Russian trolls, social media addiction and monitoring online content to “hate speech”, “AI tools” (which was frequently cited by Zuckerberg as a solution to many of the platforms problems), housing and Facebook’s political affiliation, the effectiveness of the hearing was perhaps undermined by its inability to focus on any single issue.

Perhaps Senator Kennedy won the race to be the most quoted politician of the evening when, after declaring to Zuckerberg “Mr. Zuckerberg, I come in peace”, he stated “Here’s what everybody’s been trying to tell you today, and — and I say this gently. Your user agreement sucks”.

Sadly, the subsequent exchange between Senator Kennedy and Zuckerberg was mired by the fact the Senator didn’t seem to grasp how Facebook actually works.

A series of questions about Zuckerberg’s willingness to erase users’ data, expand users’ right to know who data is shared with and “prohibit” Facebook’s use of users’ data followed, all of which were easily fended off by Zuckerberg: “Senator…you already have that control”.

It was one of many instances where Zuckerberg was compelled to take the approach of explaining how the service operates, and at times it felt more like a seminar than a hearing.

Some Senators even took the approach of bringing visual cues, in what seemed like an attempt to reduce the social network’s output to a matter of a handful of pages, posts and images.

Senator Leahy took to emphasizing a collection of pages he deemed “divisive” and asked Zuckerberg whether they are “Russian created groups”.

Zuckerberg responded he wasn’t familiar with “those pieces of content specifically,” and this particular exchange perhaps set the tone for the rest of the hearing: was Zuckerberg expected to answer for individual pages hosted on a platform that facilitates the creation of 3.3 million posts every 60 seconds?

The award for fieriest exchange of the afternoon will likely be handed to Senator Ted Cruz. The hearing took an abrupt turn when Senator Cruz decided to question Zuckerberg on “censorship”.

Senator Cruz honed in on a single question and repeated it four times following unnerved responses from Facebook’s CEO: “does Facebook consider itself a neutral public forum?”

When Senator Cruz questioned “The predicate for Section 230 immunity under the CDA is that you’re a neutral public forum. Do you consider yourself a neutral public forum, or are you engaged in political speech, which is your right under the First Amendment,” Zuckerberg, slightly taken aback by the sudden shift in focus, responded “senator, our goal is certainly not to engage in political speech. I am not that familiar with the specific legal language of the — the law that you — that you speak to”.

Senator Cruz, like other Senators, then went onto cite specific examples e.g. moveon.org, Planned Parenthood, “any Democratic candidate for office”, etc., questioning whether Zuckerberg was aware whether any of them had been removed from Facebook.

Then, aside from Zuckerberg’s admission it was working with the US Special Counsel, came the most awkward admissions of the afternoon.

“So as CEO, have you ever made hiring or firing decisions based on political positions or what candidates they supported?”, said Senator Cruz, to which Zuckerberg responded “No”.

Senator Cruz then asked “Why was Palmer Luckey fired?”, to which Zuckerberg, visibly taken aback, stated “that is a specific personnel matter that seems like it would be inappropriate to speak to here”.

During Senator Cruz’s questioning, Zuckerberg also stated “Facebook in the tech industry are located in Silicon Valley, which is an extremely left-leaning place” and “this is actually a concern that I have and that I try to root out in the company, is making sure that we do not have any bias in the work that we do, and I think it is a fair concern that people would at least wonder about”.

Aside from the fiery exchanges, the most humorous and introspective moment of the afternoon came in the form of a question asked by Senator Durbin, who asked “would you be comfortable sharing with us the name of the hotel you stayed in last night?”

Laughter followed, which perhaps underlined the importance of the point lingering in the subtext: is Zuckerberg happy to trade his own privacy in exchange for free services?

Zuckerberg responded “no,” to which Senator Durbin followed up by asking “If you messaged anybody this week, would you share with us the names of the people you’ve messaged?”

“Senator, no. I would probably not choose to do that publicly, here,” said Zuckerberg.

Zuckerberg then went on to reiterate the same points he made throughout the hearing, notably “Yes, Senator. I think everyone should have control over how their information is used”.

Another interesting exchange occurred between Zuckerberg and Senator Cantwell.

After being asked whether he is aware of Palantir, and affirming he is, Senator Cantwell then asked whether Zuckerberg believed Palantir “taught” Cambridge Analytica and whether it had scraped any data from Facebook.

In both instances, Zuckerberg claimed he doesn’t know.

During the exchange, Zuckerberg asked the Senator to repeat a specific question on whether “Cambridge Analytica worked with the Trump campaign to refine tactics. And were Facebook employees involved in that?”

Zuckerberg responded by stating “Senator, I don’t know that our employees were involved with Cambridge Analytica. Although I know that we did help out the Trump campaign overall in sales support in the same way that we do with other companies”.

Other key moments in the hearing:

  • Zuckerberg claimed that Facebook doesn’t monitor users’ microphones to target advertising. He referred to this as a “conspiracy theory”.
  • Zuckerberg acknowledged Facebook is working with the U.S. Special Counsel and stated “I want to be careful here, because that — our work with the special counsel is confidential”. He was unclear on whether Facebook has been subpoenaed.
  • On why Facebook didn’t ban Cambridge Analytica back in 2015, Zuckerberg stated “we had nothing to ban”, and claimed the data analytics firm wasn’t active on the platform post-2015. He corrected this later and stated “Cambridge Analytica actually did start as an advertiser later in 2015…so we could have in theory banned them then…we made a mistake by not doing so”.
  • In another example of the afternoon resembling a seminar more than a hearing, Zuckerberg responded “Senator, we run ads” following a question by Senator Hatch on how it expects to keep its business going long-term without charging users.
  • In an exchange which prompted some laughter, Senator Graham asked Zuckerberg whether Facebook has a monopoly, to which Zuckerberg responded “it certainly doesn’t feel like that to me”.
  • Senator Klobuchar proposed that Facebook initiate a solution to notify users 72 hours after a data breach occurs, to which Zuckerberg responded approvingly.
  • Senator Coons highlighted a report from Pro Public from 2016 which he claimed states “that Facebook lets advertisers exclude users by race in real estate advertising”. Coons emphasized that Zuckerberg claimed it “was a bad idea [to implement such targeting]” and he “was going to change the tools”. Senator Coons then emphasized a follow up report from Pro Publica stating this change never took effect.