Facebook CEO Zuckerberg Faces Tough Questions From Senators During Congressional Testimony

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg appeared before a joint hearing of the Senate Judiciary and Senate Commerce Committees Tuesday, and promised senators that his company would do better going forward to safeguard people’s information and prevent abuse.

“We didn’t do enough to prevent these tools from being abused,” he said during his opening statement. “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 arrived at the hearing before a horde of photographers, wearing a blue suit and tie, and he shook hands with Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) and Sen. Rpn Johnson (R-Wis.) before taking his seat at the center of the hearing room. Behind him were dozens of media outlets, and along the side, some news organizations had their own broadcast booths to cover the event.

Following his opening remarks, Zuckerberg faced a wide range of questions from senators. Some of his more notable responses included an admission that he wasn’t able to supply detailed information on the number of apps banned following the company’s investigation into data abuse, as well as the admission that Facebook didn’t notify users or the FTC when it first found out that Cambridge Analytica had obtained their private data back in 2015.

“We considered it a closed case,” Zuckerberg said. “In retrospect, this was clearly a mistake.”

Zuckerberg answered these questions from senators without notes. Next to him was a pencil and a bottle of water, and he at times poured it into a glass and drank a sip. He quickly answered an initial round of questions but he seemed to slow, choosing his words more carefully, when Sen. Maria Cantrell (D-Wash.) asked about recent reports about Palantir and their links to Cambridge Analytica. “I’m not that familiar with what Palantir does,” he said.

Zuckerberg was also asked by Senator Feinstein why Facebook didn’t ban Cambridge Analytica in 2015. His initial response suggested that the company wasn’t an advertiser at the time, but he later corrected himself to say that the company apparently did run ads on Facebook at the time, and that Facebook failed to stop that.

Facebook’s CEO was also repeatedly asked about his company’s business model, with senators suggesting that the company may be better off charging users for its service, as opposed to targeting them with advertising. “We think offering an ad-supported service is the most aligned with our mission,” Zuckerberg said. However, he also seemed to leave the door open for future paid services, adding: “There will always be a version of Facebook that is free.”

Another remarkable exchange touched on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. Zuckerberg initially told Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) that Mueller had subpoenaed Facebook as part of his Russia investigation. He later clarified that he didn’t know specifically for sure whether they were subpoenaed, but said that they were cooperating. He said that someone at the company had been interviewed by Mueller, but not him.

In talking about privacy regulations, Zuckerberg made the case for net neutrality, saying that it was important for him to have open access to the internet when he started his company in 2004. Net neutrality is a big issue before Congress right now, as the Senate is expected to take a vote this spring on a resolution spearheaded by Democrats to restore the rules repealed by the FCC at the end of 2017.

Asked about the genocide in Myanmar, Zuckerberg said that the company is stepping up its efforts in the country: “We are hiring dozens more Burmese content reviewers.” He added that the company is also looking to take down specific accounts, rather than individual posts.

Some lawmakers brought props with them. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) holds up a big stack of papers, the Facebook terms of service. ” Do you think the average consumer understand what they are saying?” “I think there are different ways for us to communicate that,” Zuckerberg responded, but he insisted that “for the core of the service, I think it was quite good.”

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) seized on legislation she is co-sponsoring, the Honest Ads Act, which would require a heightened level of disclosure of political ads. Facebook recently endorsed the legislation, and Twitter has followed, perhaps giving it new life after it languished for months. Klobuchar, Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) and Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) introduced the bill after the initial revelations that Facebook’s platform was used by Russian sources to place issue-oriented election ads.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) was among the harshest questioners, and said that the Cambridge Analytica scandal was “in effect willful blindness. It was needless and reckless.”

Zuckerberg refused to say that it was a violation of a Federal Trade Commission consent decree. But Blumenthal still blasted Zuckerberg’s “apology tours” as insufficient, and said that a problem was that Facebook does not provide a “clear, plan” way to show users how their data will be used.

He asked Zuckerberg whether he would agree to an opt-in, as opposed to an opt-out, requirement when it comes to data. “It certainly makes sense to discuss,” Zuckerberg said. The idea of an opt-in has been a key point in privacy regulations. When the FCC passed privacy rules for ISPs in 2016, companies balked at that provision. Those rules eventually were repealed by a congressional resolution.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) implied that Facebook had some kind of political bias, citing instances were pages devoted to conservative causes, candidates and stories have been thwarted. An example: a Chick-fil-A appreciation page.

“It is just a simple question — do you consider yourself a neutral forum?” he asked Zuckerberg.

Facebook’s CEO declined to specifically answer, other than to deny that there is a political motivation inherent in the company even though “Facebook and the tech industry are located in Silicon Valley, which is an extremely left-leaning place,” and that it was a “fair concern” over the potential for bias.

Asked why Facebook fired Oculus founder Palmer Luckey, who was in the headlines in 2016 for financially supporting far-right causes, Zuckerberg said that this decision was not politically motivated.

Later, while being questioned by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), he said that Facebook would not have its “thumb on the scale” as far as viewpoints, but said that they do want to make the platform a comfortable place for users and do act on complaints of bullying behavior.

Zuckerberg stopped short of supporting any specific piece of legislation in response to the Cambridge Analytica scandal during the hearing. Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) tried to get Zuckerberg to commit to his legislation that would require that Facebook or other platforms get users’ permission before their data is used for other purposes. It’s similar to new European requirements that will go into effect next month, Markey noted.

“In general I think that principle is exactly right,” Zuckerberg said. Markey pressed him further on whether he would support actual legislation to do so. “As a principle, yes. I think the details matter a lot,” Zuckerberg said.

The exchange got more contentious as Markey asked about legislation to protect children from harmful content. Zuckerberg ran through steps Facebook has taken, but said, “I am not certain we need a law, but I think it is something that requires discussion.”

Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) asked Zuckerberg, “Are you a tech company or are you the world’s largest publisher?” After noting the magnitude of the question, Zuckerberg answered, “I view us as a tech company.”

That answer in itself is a bit controversial, as the news industry, including Rupert Murdoch, has attacked Facebook and its use of news content. Traditional publishers have groused that Facebook cannot ignore the same ethical responsibilities that they face. Zuckerberg added that he agreed that they were “responsible for the content, but we don’t produce the content.”

Zuckerberg had a tense exchange with Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), who repeatedly asked about the exact moment in time when Facebook decided not to notify its users after learning about the Cambridge Analytica leak back in 2015. Zuckerberg said that he wasn’t aware of any specific such conversation, but that the company should have handled it differently: “In retrospect I think we view it as a mistake that we didn’t inform people.”

Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), who has developed a reputation for folksy directness, told Zuckerberg that Facebook’s user agreement “sucks.” He then asked Zuckerberg a series of questions over what a user could do to make his or her data private, or to delete it, and the Facebook CEO answered that in those cases, “You can already do that today.”

But that kind of proved Kennedy’s point: Many users get confused over how their personal information will be used — and how they can then control it once they are up and running on the platform. Kennedy said that he was “a little disappointed in this hearing.” “I just don’t feel like we are connecting,” he told Zuckerberg.

Zuckerberg also confirmed Tuesday that the researcher who obtained data on behalf of Cambridge Analytica also sold the same data to Eunoia Technologies, a company that was run by Christopher Wylie, the whistleblower who ended up unearthing the Cambridge Analytica scandal. BuzzFeed was first to report on Eunoia Technologies and its access to this data last week.

Zuckerberg’s remarks were live streamed by most TV networks, as well as on the Senate Judiciary website.

Zuckerberg’s testimony was preceded by remarks from Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, Senator Dianne Feinstein and Senator Bill Nelson.

In his opening statement, Thune alleged that the Cambridge Analytica incident and other recently-disclosed data breaches weren’t the results of bad code. “They both appear to be the result of people exploiting the tools that you built,” he said.

The hearing drew a large crowd, including some protestors. Three members of “Code Pink” made it into the hearing itself, briefly holding up small posters to protest corporate spying, and, ironically, also encourage viewers to like the group’s Facebook page. Another attendee was wearing a wig reminiscent of the movie “Trolls,” as well as a Russian flag scarf.

Zuckerberg’s testimony comes a little more than two weeks after news broke that the Trump campaign-linked data startup Cambridge Analytica obtained personal data on tens of millions of Americans. These records may have been used to power political campaigns, with Cambridge Analytica targeting Facebook users based on psychological profiles.

Facebook’s CEO is scheduled to appear before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday. The committee released his prepared remarks Monday.
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