(File pix) Cardboard cutouts of Mark Zuckerberg set out in front of the US Capitol Building in Washington. Zuckerberg is testifying before Congress on the FaceBook privacy breach. Reuters Photo

OUTSIDE the Capitol building on Tuesday sat dozens of cardboard cutouts depicting Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Facebook, wearing a characteristic T-shirt emblazoned with the message “Fix Fakebook”.

Inside, clad in a navy suit and bright blue tie, Zuckerberg appeared before the Senate Commerce and Judiciary committees as he really is: the billionaire leader of one of the world’s most powerful commercial and civic enterprises.

Zuckerberg’s appearance, his first before Congress, turned into something of a pointed gripe session, with senators attacking Facebook for failing to protect users’ data and stop Russian election interference, and raising questions about whether Facebook should be more heavily regulated. Of specific interest were the revelations that sensitive data of as many as 87 million Facebook users were harvested without explicit permission by a political consulting firm, Cambridge Analytica, which was connected to the Trump campaign.

Zuckerberg, 33, appeared confident and answered questions directly, and his performance helped bolster Facebook’s stock, which ended the day up 4.5 per cent. It was the first of two marathon hearings; the second will be before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday.

He was forced to admit mistakes and take responsibility for his company’s actions.

“I think it’s pretty much impossible, I believe, to start a company in your dorm room and then grow it to be at the scale that we’re at now without making some mistakes,” Zuckerberg said.

Senator Richard Durbin (D; Illinois) zeroed in on the central issue of the hearing, asking Zuckerberg whether he would be comfortable sharing aloud the name of the hotel where he stayed Monday night, or whether he would be comfortable sharing the names of the people he has messaged this week.

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

“I think that may be what this is all about,” Durbin said. “Your right to privacy. The limits of your right to privacy. And, how much you give away in modern America in the name of, quote, connecting people around the world.”

Zuckerberg was the only technology chief in the room, but he was often treated as a stand-in for the whole industry. Facebook has come under intense criticism for the Cambridge Analytica leak and for its initial response, which set off a #DeleteFacebook campaign online and sent the stock plunging more than 15 per cent.

But, the hearing was about more than Facebook; it exposed a critical turning point as the power, sophistication and potential exploitation of technology outpaces what users, regulators or even its creators expected or seem prepared to handle.

The moment is creating a showdown between two national power centres — Washington and Silicon Valley — as they jockey in a technology-centric world. Although Washington has long served as a check on the power of Wall Street and other profitable sectors, lawmakers have tended to act as cheerleaders for technology companies, rather than watchdogs. Light regulation enabled a culture of freewheeling innovation, and the beloved products that Silicon Valley companies created made them politically convenient allies.

Today, five of the eight largest companies in the world are West Coast technology companies. Only a single East Coast institution, JP Morgan Chase, cracks the top 10. And, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle suggested that Facebook and other companies may not be able to police themselves.

Zuckerberg said he welcomed some form of regulation, as long as it was the “right regulation”. He also expressed support for the Honest Ads Act, a bill in Congress that would require more disclosures from online political advertisers. His answers did not mollify lawmakers.

Senator Richard Blumenthal (D; Conneticut) said in an interview that he was “unsatisfied”, that it was clear Facebook could not and would not fully regulate itself, and that Congress needed to provide a solution.

“The old saying: There ought to be a law. There has to be a law. Unless there’s a law, their business model is going to continue to maximise profit over privacy.”

Zuckerberg was careful when pressed on how he defined the company, wary of opening it up to new legal liability. He said that Facebook was responsible for the content on the social network, but he argued that it was a technology company, rather than a publisher.

Some of the hardest questions came from Senator Kamala Harris (D; California) when she pressed Zuckerberg on whether Facebook executives made a decision not to inform users about the Cambridge Analytica data leak when they learned in 2015 that data was sold by a researcher to the political consulting firm. The question was crucial to the Federal Trade Commission’s investigation of Facebook’s violation of a 2011 agreement to protect users’ privacy. If the company withheld information, which violates its agreement, the company could face record fines.

Zuckerberg did not admit that the company explicitly decided to withhold that information from consumers, but he said the company had made a mistake in not informing users.

But, the lawmakers’ technical sophistication was mostly irrelevant — by the end of the session, the warning had been sent: to avoid a much harsher regulatory glare that could include major punitive measures, Facebook needs to stop apologising, get its act together, and show that it is capable of changing.

“This episode has clearly hurt us,” Zuckerberg said. “We have to do a lot of work about building trust back.” NYT

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