Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder, endured a rite of passage this week that other powerful executives have gone through before: a public grilling before Congress.
Over two days, nearly 100 lawmakers in the House and Senate interrogated Mr. Zuckerberg about the company’s handling of user information. He faced almost 600 questions, including whether the company should be more heavily regulated, to whether it intentionally censors conservative content, and how much Russians may have meddled with America’s democratic process through the social network.
The hearings came in the wake of revelations that the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica improperly harvested data of up to 87 million Facebook users.
Mark Zuckerberg has been on an apology tour.
Mr. Zuckerberg spent most of Monday visiting with top lawmakers he would later face in the hearings, mounting an apology tour of sorts. He tried to impress upon them that he understood where his company had failed, and outlined the work that Facebook was doing to avoid similar issues in the future.
The 33-year-old executive prepared for the hearings as if they were presidential debates, coordinating with a team of experts that included a former special assistant to President George W. Bush. He was ready to discuss topics from privacy to political polarization.
The company made a series of announcements that it said would help people to take better control of their information. It cut off advertisers’ access to information from third-party data brokers, which had allowed marketers to increasingly target users on the social network. The company also promoted ways for people to download and review their data. What Facebook amassed about our main personal technology writer shocked him.
Privacy and data practices weren’t the only things that drew scrutiny. Some of Facebook’s most devoted users publicly criticized the social network for how they said it profited off unpaid publishers. And organizations working in Myanmar rebuked Facebook for not doing enough to stop hate speech, which has incited violence in that country. The organizers received a personal response from Mr. Zuckerberg, saying — perhaps unexpectedly — sorry.
‘I think that may be what this is all about … your right to privacy.’
This was Mr. Zuckerberg’s first testimony before Congress. To mark the occasion, he shed his iconic T-shirt-and-hoodie wardrobe for more formal attire. For his first round of testimony before the Senate Commerce and Judiciary committees, he wore the standard Washington uniform of a navy blue suit, paired with a “Facebook blue” tie. It was what one may call his “I’m sorry” suit. Our fashion critic said that while the gesture may have been superficial at best, it was strategic and optically effective.
The Senate hearing turned out to be a pointed gripe session. Senator Richard Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, zeroed in on the central issue of the hearing, asking Mr. Zuckerberg whether he would be comfortable sharing aloud the name of the hotel where he stayed on 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,” Mr. Zuckerberg said.
“I think that may be what this is all about,” Mr. 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.”
At some point during the Senate hearing, Mr. Zuckerberg inadvertently disclosed some of his talking points. One section suggested responses in case he was asked if he would step down. No one did.
Mr. Zuckerberg’s second day on the Hill was arguably more tense, with lawmakers from the House Energy and Commerce Committee asking more pointed questions than their counterparts in the Senate had. Calls for greater congressional scrutiny began to grow, as our reporters on the Daily podcast explored.
Over the two days, Mr. Zuckerberg did not have any major slip-ups, but his testimony was inaccurate at times. We fact-checked what he said.
What happens now? Regulation is in Facebook’s future.
Mr. Zuckerberg’s testimony may have been so smooth in part because he avoided answering many questions, using a variation of the phrase “my team will get back to you” more than 20 times.
In the meantime, lawmakers are trying to see how to best regulate internet behemoths. One of our columnists writes that even legislators who are not digital natives should not be cowed from regulating technology companies as they have other industries. Privacy experts agree, with many saying there is now enough social consciousness to make real and important changes in the way the internet user data is handled and regulated.
Congress members can perhaps look to their counterparts in Europe for legislation inspiration. Regulators there are already cracking down on Facebook, forcing the company to stop using facial recognition technology within the European Union and curtail some of its internet-use tracking practices in some countries. Mr. Zuckerberg’s inquisitors in Congress have already suggested that they may be looking to mirror some of those efforts in the United States.