When Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook in his Harvard dorm room 14 years ago, it was, in his own words, “an idealistic and optimistic company” meant to “connect people” in new ways.
The Facebook chief executive, now 33, expanded that goal Tuesday when he and his social media empire inadvertently inspired a rare moment of bipartisanship on Capitol Hill.
During a five-hour-long livestreamed congressional hearing, senators from both sides of the aisle appeared united in the sport of grilling the T-shirt-loving millennial billionaire who fooled exactly no one by wearing a stiff suit and tie that instead wore him.
“Would you be comfortable sharing the name of the hotel you stayed in last night?” asked Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) well into hour two. Zuckerberg reflexively reached for the thin, plastic cup from which he’d already sipped a Sparkletts-tank worth of water, as if it might finally buoy his sinking testimony.
No, answered Zuckerberg in a semi-mumble. He wouldn’t feel comfortable doing so publicly.
“This is what this is all about,” said Durbin, “your right to privacy and how much you give away in modern America in the name of ‘connecting people around the world.’”
It was another newsworthy moment of the old guard vs. the new guard. But this time around, it wasn’t Gen Y’s Parkland students driven by loss, tragedy and the courage to challenge politics as usual. It was politicians, many in their 70s and 80s, fighting for their constituents rather than against each other for a change. In a news cycle filled with the chaos we now expect — FBI raids, porn star payouts, a Syrian tragedy being leveraged for distraction — it felt like one place where perhaps the old system was still working.
Dozens of senators had five minutes each to question Zuckerberg, who’s been in and out of the hot seat for the past decade thanks to his company’s reckless handling of user data and privacy. He reportedly rehearsed extensively for this appearance.
The catalyst for his “latest apology tour,” as one news analyst called it, was the recently revealed scandal involving the political data firm Cambridge Analytica that was contracted by Trump’s election campaign. Then-Breitbart publisher Stephen Bannon reportedly co-founded Cambridge Analytica with financial backing from billionaire Robert Mercer. The firm accessed the private information of more than 87 million Facebook users. Monday, Facebook informed its users that the data theft also included information from its users’ private messages.
The majority of the senators who questioned Zuckerberg demanded accountability for a history of missteps, wanting to know what proactive steps were being taken to avoid future privacy breaches, data mining, Russian cyber meddling and the dissemination of fake news. But they didn’t always understand his answers.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), 62, asked Zuckerberg who was Facebook’s main competition. The young entrepreneur, who looked paler by the hour, said there was more than one answer.
There are various crossover services provided by companies such as Google and Amazon, he said. But they are different from Twitter, which is also a competitor but…
If I buy a Ford, and it doesn’t work well, and I don’t like it, I can buy a Chevy. If I’m upset at Facebook, what’s the equivalent?… I can sign up for?
Graham interrupted: “If I buy a Ford, and it doesn’t work well, and I don’t like it, I can buy a Chevy. If I’m upset at Facebook, what’s the equivalent?… I can sign up for?” And “Is Twitter the same as what you do?”
The 84-year-old Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), who commented that the event was the most intensive technology hearing he’d been involved in since the Microsoft hearings he chaired back in the 1990s, asked, “How do you sustain a business model in which users don’t pay for service?”
“Senator, we run ads,” answered Zuckerberg.
“I see,” said Hatch. “That’s great.”
You could almost hear the exasperated sighs of the onlookers in the chamber, who, unlike the rows of senators, mostly appeared to be below retirement age. Throngs of spectators had lined the hallway to see the anticipated proceeding, while a collection of young reporters typed away on computers, perhaps posting about the event on Instagram because Facebook is, like, old.
Zuckerberg was swarmed by photographers when he entered the room around 2 p.m., and they snapped away furiously as he steeled himself into the hot seat. He began with a short speech delivered in an apologetic tone.
“It’s clear now that we didn’t do enough to prevent these tools from being used for harm as well,” he said. “And that goes for fake news, foreign interference in elections and hate speech, as well as developers and data privacy.”
But as congressperson after congressperson pressed him for specifics — what are the steps you’re taking now to preempt Russian propaganda, and why didn’t you warn consumers earlier that their data may have been harvested for nefarious reasons back when it happened — Zuckerberg began speaking like, well, a politician.
“We’re working on it.” “I don’t have that exact figure.” “I’ll have my team get back to you.”
Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) said that she couldn’t figure out if Zuckerberg was outfoxing the foxes, or if he was going along with “a major trend in the information age of trying to harvest information for political forces.”
“I believe you have all the talent. My question is, do you have all the will to solve this problem?” she said. “Everyone in the world deserves good privacy detection.”
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) directly challenged Zuckerberg’s claims that Facebook had made significant progress in blocking Russian hacker accounts. The congressman had an assistant hold up a a posterboard plastered with images of sketchy-looking Facebook pages.
“These unverified, divisive pages are on Facebook today,” said Leahy. “They look a lot like the anonymous [content] of Russian agencies used to spread propaganda during the 2016 election.”
“You’re asking about those specifically?” said Zuckerberg, who appeared surprised by being pressed on such details.
“I’ll have my team get back to you,” he added reflexively.
The final question came from Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.). “You said multiple times during this hearing that I own the data… That sounds good, but in practice you’re making $40 billion a year. I’m not making money on it. It feels like you own the data. Could you give me some idea on how you can honestly say it’s my data?”
But the glass of water was running dry, as was Zuckerberg. He’ll have to get back to us.