What Facebook Can Learn from Microsoft Circa 1998

Answer all the Senator's questions with "We just want to innovate"

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Facebook's chief technology officer Bret Taylor endured a thorough grilling before the Senate commerce subcommittee in Washington on Thursday. Like they did last week, when Apple and Google made an appearance to defend their use of location-based technology, the senators were aggressive with their questioning in an attempt to find out exactly why Facebook wasn't doing more to protect its user privacy. That, and how exactly 7.5 million children under the age of 13 managed to violate Facebook's Terms and Conditions and create a profile on the site.

Taylor--a former employee of Google, where he co-created the Maps application--was a good sport despite the 73 year-old Senator Jay Rockefeller's obvious and vehement distaste for the company's practices and perhaps even the generation that has so enthusiastically embraced them, regardless of the privacy controversy. "It's my general feeling that people who are 20, 21, 22 years old really don't have any social values at this point," said Rockefeller while observing the fact that Mark Zuckerberg was likely most interested on making Facebook grow bigger and faster than anything else when he first build the site at Harvard. Other senators like Claire McCaskill played a different tune, highlighting the benefits of free services like Facebook and how exchanging a bit of our personal data for free stuff might be good for American commerce.

All this talk about innovation and principles reminds me of another grueling Senate grilling of a tech company. In 1998, Bill Gates sat sweating in the hearing room lights for the first time to answer questions from the Senate Judiciary Committee about whether or not Microsoft wanted to monopolize the computer industry. At the time, it seemed pretty plausible as Microsoft's "breathtaking growth... [had] for many raised serious questions about the future of competition and innovation in the software industry" according to Sen. Orrin Hatch. The rest of the senators present likened Microsoft to Pac Man and accused Gates, then president of the company, of a certain hubris. "Mr. Gates, no one--no matter how powerful--is above the law," said Sen. Herb Kohl of Wisconsin. The chairman of Microsoft competitor, Sun Microsystems, sounded like it came out of an Ayn Rand novel: "We think, left unchecked, Microsoft has a monopoly position that they could use to leverage their way into banking, newspapers, cable, and broadcasting, Internet service providers, applications, data bases browsers. You name it."

Despite the pressure, Gates stood his ground in his first appearance before the Senate. His talking points were clear: Microsoft contributed a lot of money to the American economy the previous year--over $100 billion in 1997 to be exact--and imposing any restrictions on the company would hinder its growth. Ultimately, the Senate caved on this point. Even Gates' then arch-rival Jim Barksdale, CEO of Netscape, agreed, tipping his hat to the committee for their due diligence but admitting that new legislation and new regulations would have a "harmful effect" on the industry.

Now, privacy and monopoly are not the same thing, but it looks like the battle over privacy is quite clearly the gauntlet through which Facebook must pass in order to grow unchecked.

One witness at today's hearing asked Taylor snarkily, "Instead of spending your money on hiring PR firms to take down your competitors, you should be spending it on developing innovative technology to protect our kids." Well, Facebook was developing ground-breaking technology that could help halt the trade of child pornography. But as Sen. Rockefeller pointed out, Facebook only employees 100 people to supervise content posted by the site's 600 million users. How could the company ever be expected to protect users from bullying and abuse? "That is indefensible," answered Taylor. "It's unbelievable that you'd say that."

Taylor may as well have been Gates sitting in the Judiciary Committee hearing room in 1998. Had he sounded less defensive, that is. Whether Rockefeller likes it or not--we'll just point out the last name in order to let you figure out the ironic monopoly metaphor on your own--the Senate now finds itself in the difficult position of deciding on which checks and balances they can impose without hampering the economic boon Facebook could provide. In 2011, Facebook is now that company that "left unchecked... [could] leverage their way into banking, newspapers, cable, and broadcasting, Internet service providers, applications, data bases browsers." They may also be America's next trillion dollar company. They're already well on their way.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.