It’s hard to imagine that Mark Zuckerberg could have seen himself sitting before Congress, grilled by Senators about presidential elections, back when he was dreaming up an app to rate whether girls were hot (true story) in his Harvard dorm room. But such are the unintended consequences of chasing your ambitions beyond their furthest limits: Zuckerberg’s dorm-room dream is now a $477 billion company with over 27,000 full-time employees that redefines the internet and provides such a wide array of services and functions that even he occasionally stutters when trying to explain them. And as a result of a pattern of prioritizing growth over privacy or data concerns, Zuckerberg and his company find themselves in the crosshairs of public and governmental scrutiny.
This week, Zuckerberg is in D.C. on an apology tour, sitting before both the Senate (yesterday) and the House (today). The impetus for this was the Cambridge Analytica scandal that saw 87 million users’ “private” data fall into the wrong hands, and the Russian interference into our elections brought on by way of Facebook’s “fake news” and advertising.
With their time in the spotlight, members of Congress did address these issues, though they used the moment to ask a far wider range of questions which, in total, had the effect of making Congress look a) out of touch with how technology works and b) like they weren’t even sure what their biggest issue is with the platform. Overall, it was a big-time gripe session which Zuckerberg handled rather well.
Here’s a bit on what went down and what we learned:
ZUCK CAN HANDLE THE PRESSURE
Sure, when Zuckerberg walked in the room, looking pale, uncomfortable, and skittish in his blue suit, JokeTwitter went wild. But over five hours of relentless and scattered questioning from 40 Senators, the Facebook honcho was collected and focused, easily handling the moment and being confident without saying anything incriminating or patronizing. His most repeated phrase was “I’ll have my team get back to you,” which is a smart (if evasive) thing to say, and overall performed the role of “explaining Facebook to your dad” very well. Another measure of how well he did: Wall Street was so impressed by his performance that Facebook stock finished up 4.5%. (The stock needs it: Facebook has dropped over $80 billion in market value after the Cambridge Analytica scandal first broke.) As reported yesterday, Zuckerberg was coached extensively by lawyers, strategists, and other humans who could help him act more like a member of their species (through charm, empathy, and blinking). You can change the clothes but not the man and all that but, overall, this was a more winning version of Zuckerberg than we’ve seen in similar situations.
SENATORS DON’T REALLY KNOW WHAT FACEBOOK DOES
I mean, some do. But largely, the questions from Senators demonstrated a general lack of understanding of all the areas in which Facebook operates, all the ways in which it interacts with its users, all the ways in which it harnesses data, and on. This isn’t to say that Senators didn’t prepare—they seemed to have some smart coaching to ask some pointed questions—but overall, there were plenty of moments that made the day feel like a 101 on how Facebook works, which made the five-hour testimony feel somewhat toothless.
KAMALA IS NO JOKE
One notable exception to the Senatorial fuddy-duddyness was California’s own (and 2020 Presidential hopeful) Kamala Harris who asked Zuckerberg some pointed questions about what Facebook knew and when about Cambridge Analytica. On the record: Facebook knew that there was a data breach in 2015, but claims it only learned that the data had been improperly sold and used by Cambridge Anlaytica in 2018. The main point here: If Facebook has known about this 2018 scandal since 2015 and did nothing to inform users, let alone the public, how can we trust this incredibly powerful entity with keeping our best interests in mind the next time around? Anyway, in so precisely formulating her question, and by being so clear-eyed about what she was doing with her four minutes in the spotlight (unlike most other Senators who flailed in many directions with no central thesis), Harris looked like a force with which to reckon.
ON REGULATION (I.E. FACEBOOK IS CONCERNED ABOUT BEING SEEN AS A “MONOPOLY,” AND SOME SENATORS ARE, TOO)
This is a big one for Facebook, and was clearly one of Zuckerberg’s primary points of concern: Facebook would really like to continue to operate in the relatively regulation-free zone that Washington D.C. has afforded Silicon Valley. In the past, this worked to mutual benefit: D.C. allowed the tech industry to self-regulate, acting more as a cheerleader than a policeman and, in turn, Silicon Valley has become a primary engine for the American economy. (Nearly all of the most lucrative businesses in the nation are tech ones, from Apple to Amazon to Google and Facebook and on.)
But when you don’t regulate an industry, there’s no reason for that industry to value anything, not even public interest or privacy concerns, over profits. And that’s how we’ve gotten ourselves into this mess. Overall, Congress doesn’t want to step on Facebook’s money-making machine, because hey, that’s good for America, but they’re starting to see why they might need to. And you have to imagine that Facebook would like to avoid this. In fact, one of the most revealing items from Zuckerberg’s Senate testimony came not from something he said, but rather something he left behind: During a break, Zuck exited the room without taking his written notes, which photographers eagerly snapped up. Chief amongst the things we learned was that Facebook doesn’t want to be seen as a monopoly. (His notes said Facebook had only “a small part of the ad market” and that “advertisers have choices too,” both things that would counter any line of questioning on being a monopoly.)
To that point, Senator Lindsey Graham asked the question point-blank, by drawing comparison to the auto industry. He essentially argued: “If I drove a Ford and didn’t like what they were doing, I could always buy a Chevy. What’s your competitive service?” Zuckerberg pointed not to one, but to several (Google, Microsoft, Apple), leading Graham to ask: “You don’t think you have a monopoly?” Zuckerberg answered, “It doesn’t feel that way to me!” Which got big laughs. But it underscores the point: Facebook does so much, with no clear competitor, that the monopoly talks are getting closer. And if Facebook is deemed a monopoly, the government would have license to take a scalpel to their business in a way that is Zuck’s worst nightmare.
FACEBOOK IS WORKING WITH SPECIAL COUNSEL ROBERT MUELLER
This was a big admission. Robert Mueller is, of course, the spearhead of the government’s investigation into the relationship between the Trump campaign and Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election. The fact that this came on the heels of Mueller raiding Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s office means that the President is probably doubly bouncing off of walls right about now. It also means that Mueller is casting an even wider net, with even more components, in his investigation.
DOES FACEBOOK TRACK YOU EVEN WHEN YOU’RE NOT USING IT?
HOW DOES THIS AFFECT YOU?
Man, still hard to say. The House interrogation of Zuckerberg is happening as we speak, so I’ll update this with anything fresh, but overall, it’s like this: The government is worried about Facebook’s all-encompassing influence on our lives and our systems of communication and government, and is thinking maybe regulations are in order. But at the same time, they love all the money Facebook makes, and generally don’t want to disincentivize the innovation that comes from the tech industry. Facebook is making some big promises about reigning in the access that app developers and other parties have to your data, and to being more forthcoming and minimal in the ways in which they harness that data.
But be clear: Facebook is a “free” service, in which their business model comes not from collecting money from you, but rather from monetizing (or “renting”) your data to other entities. For now, Congress hasn’t really pressed a strong sense of what they want Facebook to do, or even if they perfectly understand how to talk about the problem. And that’s why Wall Street rewarded Facebook yesterday. And that’s why, for now, Facebook can call this a victory.
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