The nation now knows that Mark Zuckerberg owns a suit. The Facebook chief executive, who famously favors hoodies and t-shirts over corporate attire, showed up on Capitol Hill in a dark-blue suit and a light-blue tie, as he spent several hours testifying before the Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees, sometimes answering and sometimes dodging questions about the Palo Alto, California, company and its growing role in American civic life.
Still, his youth was impossible to ignore. Zuckerberg is 33, while many of the 44 U.S. Senators sitting before him were well over twice his age. The hearing was gaveled in by Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, who was born in 1933, when rotary telephones were the norm and television was only recently invented.
Much of what followed had the feel of a brilliant but errant student being chided by his exasperated teachers. Their reasons for exasperation were myriad, foremost among them the revelation that data research firm Cambridge Analytica had illegally harvested the data of some 87 million Facebook users. Those data are believed to have helped the electoral prospects of Donald J. Trump, but the seeming ease with which Cambridge Analytica violated the privacy of private citizens infuriated Democrats and Republicans alike.
“The tech industry has an obligation to respond to widespread and growing concerns over data privacy and security, and to restore the public trust,” Grassley said in his opening statement. “The status quo no longer works.” It was a remarkable statement, if only because it was made by a man who well remembers when it was Russian nuclear missiles, not Russian bots and trolls, that threatened the nation’s security.
The point about privacy was most forcefully made by Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, who asked Zuckerberg where he was staying while in Washington, where he will testify again tomorrow. Zuckerberg declined to name his hotel. He also wouldn’t say whom he’d messaged that week. “That might be what this is all about,” Durbin replied. “Your right to privacy — and how much you give away.”
Another highlight came when Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, pressed Zuckerberg on whether Facebook were a monopoly, using the example of buying a car: He could easily buy a Chevy if unhappy with his Ford, but where does one share one’s vacation photos and political views if not on Facebook?
Zuckerberg launched into a description of the three tranches of Facebook competitors, an explanation that plainly annoyed Graham. “You don’t think you have a monopoly?” he pressed..
“It doesn’t feel that way to me,” Zuckerberg replied. He tried to assuage concerns about the ways in which users’ data was being used, assuring that while Cambridge Analytica was almost certainly not the lone malefactor on Facebook, the company is doing everything in its power to clarify with users what data they are sharing, and with whom.
“I think he did okay,” says Betsy P. Sigman, a data analytics expert at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. “He’s obviously very good at apologizing.” Sigman notes, however, that user data is Facebook’s lifeblood, so while users may eventually be granted more control over their personal information, the company will continue to sell targeted ads. “That’s not gonna change,” Sigman says.
Representative Ro Khanna, the California Democrat in whose district Facebook is based, described the hearing in a text message as “a missed opportunity for lawmakers to put forth ideas about how to make laws for the cyber world and come to grips with the fact that technology has changed at lightning speed and our laws haven’t kept up.” Khanna, who is 41 and was a Silicon Valley intellectual property lawyer before winning a House seat in 2016, told me that the “hearing revealed a knowledge gap in Congress about technology,” with few lawmakers “able to press Zuckerberg on a detailed discussion” on issues like privacy.
Nicholas Thompson, editor in chief of Wired, also gave Zuckerberg’s first turn on the Hill a middling review. “He wasn’t inspiring; he wasn’t brilliant; he wasn’t even that reassuring,” Thompson says. “But he got through it with his head up, and I think he’s probably pretty pleased.”
Thomson is the co-author of a recent, much-discussed Wired article about Facebook’s inadvertent involvement in the 2016 presidential election. Thompson and his co-author depict Zuckerberg as “a determined, even ruthless, steward of the company’s manifest destiny.” They also note that “Facebook is an open, neutral platform is almost like a religious tenet inside the company.” That editorial passivity likely allowed for the proliferation of fake news, in particular after Facebook fired its human editors, who seemed to have shown a bias against conservative news organizations. That happened two months before the 2016 presidential election.
Despite that, suspicions that Facebook is more favorable to liberal users remain, as was clear from some of the questioning directed at Zuckerberg on Tuesday afternoon. Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, was particularly aggressive in this respect, wondering why the conservative, pro-Trump duo of Lynnette “Diamond” Hardaway and Rochelle “Silk” Richardson had had videos deemed “unsafe” by Facebook. Clearly flustered by Cruz’s prosecutorial approach, Zuckerberg conceded that Silicon Valley is an “extremely left-leaning place,” one whose principles clash with those of the Republican Party in almost every imaginable respect.
Ben Sasse, Republican of Nebraska, asked Zuckerberg to define “hate speech.” He was troubled by the notion that “Facebook may decide it needs to police a whole bunch of speech that I think America may be better off not having policed by one company that has a really big and powerful platform,” in particular alluding to discussion of abortion. Zuckerberg did not answer the question with any clarity, admitting that the definition of hate speech was especially vexing.
As with all else, his strategy was to reassure that he was no longer the Harvard undergraduate who start the social network in his dormitory. He portrayed himself as a sober chief executive, the steward of a company that some now call a public utility. There were problems, but he would solve them. Challenges awaited, but he would meet them. And while many questions remain, the performance did appear to achieve its objective: as Zuckerberg sat on Capitol Hill, Facebook’s stock was climbing, finishing the day with a 4.5 percent gain.
Even so, some remained unimpressed. Speaking after the hearing to Tucker Carlson of Fox News after the hearing, John Kennedy, Republican of Louisiana, said that Zuckerberg left him unimpressed.
“It is clear,” Kennedy said, “that the digital promised land has some mines in it.”
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