Amid mounting pressure from customers and regulators, Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg broke his public silence Wednesday about the widening Cambridge Analytica scandal. He began with a prepared statement posted on his Facebook page followed by interviews with CNN, Recode, Wired and the New York Times — conversations that offered deeper insight into his perspective on what might amount to the company’s biggest crisis.
Here are some key takeaways from Zuckerberg’s press tour:
Zuckerberg blames Facebook’s naivety
Facebook’s rise from a service that judged whether Harvard students were hot or not to the world’s largest social network was, by any measure, meteoric. In the interviews, Zuckerberg makes the case that in his company’s early days, he never could have anticipated the problems Facebook now faces.
“If you had asked me, when I got started with Facebook, if one of the central things I’d need to work on now is preventing governments from interfering in each other’s elections, there’s no way I thought that’s what I’d be doing, if we talked in 2004 in my dorm room,” he told the Times.
He told Recode’s Kara Swisher that he erred in judgment in his early position on data portability — essentially the movement of data between Facebook and other services.
“You know, frankly, I just got that wrong,” he told Recode. “I was maybe too idealistic on the side of data portability, that it would create more good experiences. And it created some, but I think what the clear feedback was from our community was that people value privacy a lot more. And they would rather have their data locked down and be sure that nothing bad will ever happen to it, than be able to easily take it and have social experiences in other places. So, over time, we have been just kind of narrowing it down.”
He told Wired: “I think if we’d internalized that sooner and had made these changes that we made in 2014 in, say, 2012 or 2010, then I also think we could have avoided a lot of harm.”
Facebook isn’t sure whether Cambridge Analytica is the only bad actor
In his prepared statement, Zuckerberg outlined a number of actions Facebook would take to try to prevent other outside parties from exploiting user data — but he also called for an audit of developers who gathered user data in the past. In his interviews, Zuckerberg suggested that the process of weeding out and determining other potentially bad actors would be a complex, expensive endeavor that would take “a while” to complete.
He told the New York Times that Facebook would be investigating “thousands” of apps and that the company would reach out to those developers in the “near term.”
“It isn’t perfect. But I do think that this is going to be a major deterrent going backwards,” he told Recode. “I think it will clean up a lot of data, and going forward, the more important thing is just preventing this from happening in the first place and that’s going to be solved by restricting the amount of data that developers can have access to.”
“[W]e want to make sure that there aren’t other Cambridge Analyticas out there,” he told Wired. “So I think our responsibility is to now go and look at every single app and to, any time there’s anything suspicious, get into more detail and do a full audit of them.”
#deletefacebook is on the company’s radar
Although Zuckerberg said the company hasn’t seen a “meaningful number” of users delete their Facebook accounts in the wake of the controversy, he acknowledged there’s a problem when the hashtag #deletefacebook is reverberating around social media.
“I think it’s a clear signal that this is a major trust issue for people, and I understand that,” he told the New York Times. “And whether people delete their app over it or just don’t feel good about using Facebook, that’s a big issue that I think we have a responsibility to rectify.”
Zuckerberg says he wouldn’t oppose regulation — with some caveats
Facebook and other technology companies have long benefited from lax regulation. But the tides in Washington may be turning, and Zuckerberg suggests he won’t stand in the way of all regulation.
“I actually am not sure we shouldn’t be regulated,” he told CNN. “I think in general, technology is an increasingly important trend in the world, and I actually think the question is more, what is the right regulation rather than ‘Yes or no, should it be regulated?’ ”
Regulation he says he wouldn’t oppose?
“I think there are things like ads transparency regulation that I would love to see,” he told the news station. “If you look at how much regulation there is around advertising on TV and print, it’s just not clear why there should be less on the internet. We should have the same level of transparency required.”
Zuckerberg said he wasn’t sure whether the bill would pass and suggested ad transparency tools already rolled out by Facebook would “accomplish most of the things that are in all the bills.”
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) was surprised by his statement.
Just watched Mark Zuckerberg on @CNN & I was surprised to hear him say he supported the senate bill on election ads. That’s my bill—the Honest Ads Act—w/ @SenJohnMcCain & @MarkWarner ..It’s a new position for Facebook & we’d like to get it done before election. Twitter? Google?— Amy Klobuchar (@amyklobuchar) March 22, 2018
“It’s a new position for Facebook & we’d like to get it done before election,” she tweeted. Twitter? Google?”
Zuckerberg is willing to testify before Congress — with some caveats
Klobuchar and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) have called for Zuckerberg to testify before Congress to explain what happened in the data-mining incident. And in his interview with Recode, Zuckerberg said he was “open to doing that.”
“Our responsibility is to make sure that they have access to all the information that they need to have,” he said.
But there was a slight caveat: Zuckerberg told Wired he was open to testifying “if it is ever the case that I am the most informed person at Facebook in the best position to testify.” He noted that others at the company “whose full jobs are to deal with legal compliance or some of these different things” could be “just fundamentally more in the details on those things.”
“So as long as it’s a substantive testimony where what folks are trying to get is as much content as possible, I’m not sure when I’ll be the right person,” Zuckerberg said. “But I would be happy to if I were.”
Facebook knows it will face even more scrutiny soon
With midterm elections on the horizon, Zuckerberg seems aware the company will be under the microscope.
In his interview with the New York Times, he said Facebook learned from the 2016 election and since then has implemented tools that helped identify 30,000 fake accounts believed to be linked to Russia that “were trying to do the same kind of tactics they did in the U.S. in the 2016 election.”
Facebook, he said, was able to disable those accounts and “prevent that from happening on a large scale” in elections in France. The company also used artificial intelligence tools during the special election for an Alabama Senate seat last year and found many accounts stemming from Macedonia.
“There’s no doubt that in 2016, there were a number of issues, including foreign interference and false news, that we did not have as much of a handle on as we feel a responsibility to for our community,” he told the New York Times. “I feel a lot better about the systems now.”
But, Zuckerberg said, “Russia and other governments are going to get more sophisticated in what they do too.” He said the company will be prepared not just for elections in the U.S., but also in India and Brazil, as well as other elections going on this year that are “really important.”
When asked by CNN whether he thinks bad actors already are using Facebook to meddle in the upcoming midterm elections, Zuckerberg said: “I’m sure someone’s trying. Right? I’m sure that there’s V2, version two, of whatever the Russian effort was in 2016.
“There’s a lot of hard work that we need to do to make it harder for nation-states like Russia to do election interference, to make it so that trolls and other folks can’t spread fake news, but we can get in front of this,” he told CNN. “There are big elections around the world, and you can bet that we are really committed to doing everything that we need to to make sure that the integrity of those elections on Facebook is secured.”