Mark Zuckerberg finally walked into Congress today in a suit and Facebook-blue tie. He sat alone in a chair, behind a brown wooden desk, backed by a short-row of Facebook lawyers, and facing a U of nearly half the Senate, a joint hearing of the Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees.
And as the first day of the hearings came to a close, not one Senator had landed a good punch on the CEO of Facebook. It felt as if most of the chamber was asking, in one way or another, “What even is Facebook?”
Zuckerberg’s performance was not perfect. His stilted delivery played well in the theatrical proceedings, but he professed ignorance about the basic functioning of his own platform, a cornerstone piece of Internet legislation called the Communications Decency Act, and whether Facebook tracked browsing even when users were logged out (they can).
But it was the Senators who truly disappointed. Some wandered off topic, explained how Facebook worked to Zuckerberg, or didn’t seem to understand the questions they were asking. Others veered into boring partisan terrain.
There were some interesting lines of questioning. Senator Lindsey Graham raised the company’s dominant market position, gesturing towards a possible antitrust argument against the company. “It certainly doesn’t feel like that to me,” Zuckerberg responded. Senator Richard Blumenthal attempted to pin down Zuckerberg about what his company should have known about Cambridge Analytica’s data collection. Senator Markey pushed the need for greater children’s privacy protections. Zuckerberg demurred on the need for a new law.
But, by and large, we didn’t witness grandstanding, so much as floundering. In this confrontation of technological power with political power, the Senate did not seem able to truly grapple with the way Facebook works or what to ask to extract new information from the company’s CEO. Their knowledge of the company’s history and technological capabilities are too limited. Even if their staffers delivered good starting questions, they couldn’t push Zuckerberg with difficult follow-ups.
For example, when the topic of Myanmar came up, Zuckerberg skated with the promise to hire “dozens” of Burmese speakers. But human rights groups have been pushing Facebook to pay greater attention to the situation for years. And there are many different language groups in the country. No Senator pinned Zuckerberg down on how many people familiar with the languages spoken there worked at Facebook when the company launched in that country.
Senator Dan Sullivan asked Zuckerberg perhaps the most important overarching question, “Do you think you’re too powerful?” This is what Sullivan took from Zuckerberg before he moved on: “Most of the time when people talk about our scale, they are referencing we have 2 billion people,” Zuckerberg said. “The vast majority are outside the US. I think that’s something Americans should be proud of.” It was a complete non-response to the pivotal question.
Senator Cory Booker brought up the negligence that Facebook had shown in continuing to allow housing ads that were on their face discriminatory, and suggested that civil-rights groups be allowed to “audit” some of these ads. But when Zuckerberg gave a pat we-should-talk-more response, Booker moved on.
Perhaps tomorrow’s hearing will deliver a more memorable moment. Perhaps Zuckerberg will tire. Maybe someone will ask about Facebook’s role in political advertising generally or pin Zuckerberg down on what information Instagram shares with Facebook’s back-end advertising systems. Why did Facebook hire (and continue to employ) Joseph Chancellor, one of the people who co-founded GSR, the company at the center of the Cambridge Analytica scandal? Will Facebook keep aggressively selling political advertising?
There are still so many questions for Zuckerberg to answer, and based on today’s proceedings, there still will be, long after the hearings are over.