WASHINGTON – Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg repeatedly expressed contrition in a high-profile congressional hearing Tuesday that featured complaints that went far beyond how the social network has handled the data of tens of millions of Americans.
Senators from both parties aggressively questioned Zuckerberg in his first-ever public appearance in front of Congress over recent controversies – from data privacy to Russian disinformation. They demanded new detail about how Facebook collects and uses data and elicited assurances that it will implement major improvements in protecting personal privacy.
The threat of greater regulation – not just of Facebook, but of the entire technology industry – hung over the first of two days of congressional hearings.
“If Facebook and other online companies will not or cannot fix these privacy invasions, then we will,” said Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, the highest-ranking Democrat on the Commerce Committee. The Tuesday event was a rare joint hearing before two Senate panels – the Commerce and Judiciary committees – meeting in joint session, with as many as 44 senators set to question the Facebook executive.
Zuckerberg, who traded his trademark T-shirts and hoodies for the standard Capitol Hill suit-and-tie garb, sought to quell the concerns of lawmakers and vowed to make meaningful reforms.
“It's clear now that we didn't do enough to prevent these tools from being used for harm as well,” Zuckerberg said at the Senate hearing. “And that goes for fake news, foreign interference in elections, and hate speech, as well as developers and data privacy.”
Zuckerberg, who has long avoided wading into Washington affairs, took responsibility for the missteps.
“We didn't take a broad enough view of our responsibility, and that was a big mistake. And it was my mistake, and I'm sorry. I started Facebook, I run it, and I'm responsible for what happens here.”
Facebook's inability to identify and combat Russian disinformation during the 2016 presidential campaign is one of Zuckerberg's “biggest regrets,” he said. “One of my top priorities in 2018 is getting this right.”
He also confirmed that Facebook officials have been interviewed by officials from special counsel Robert Mueller, who has been investigating Russia's role in influencing the 2016 election. “I know we are working with them,” Zuckerberg said.
Zuckerberg's acknowledgments of responsibility punctuated an extraordinary shift in tone for him and the company he co-founded in his Harvard dorm room in 2004. After years of recurrent privacy controversies and official apologies, Zuckerberg has strained in recent weeks to convince lawmakers, users and regulators that Facebook is determined to deliver meaningful change. The House Energy and Commerce Committee has its own hearing scheduled for this morning.
The senators did not seem appeased by Zuckerberg's several apologies, acknowledgments and vows to do better in the future. Several asked for detailed answers about how private, third-party companies, such as the political consultancy Cambridge Analytica, gained access to personal data on 87 million Facebook users, including 71 million Americans.
Others questioned whether the very business model of Facebook – which makes money by selling online advertisements based on what it learns about users on the platform – was flawed.
On several occasions, Zuckerberg responded to detailed questions by saying that “his team” would report back later with specific answers. But on the subject of Facebook's business model, Zuckerberg took on the question directly, arguing that by relying on advertising revenue, Facebook could reach far more users than otherwise possible.
“We want to offer a free service that everyone can afford. That's the only way we can connect billions of people ... and is most aligned with our mission of connecting everyone in the world,” he said.
In a pointed exchange, Sen. Lindsay Graham asked Zuckerberg whether he agreed with a 2016 memo written by Facebook Vice President Andrew Bosworth that appeared to suggest that bad outcomes, include bullying and even death, that can be facilitated by Facebook's platform, were a necessary part of the company's mission to connect the world.
At first, Zuckerberg tried to sidestep the question, saying that most people at the company didn't agree with the memo. The senator shot back, saying, “If somebody who said this worked for me, I'd fire him.”
Zuckerberg replied that he believes it's important to create a work environment where people feel free to speak their minds.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said, “We've seen the apology tours before. ... I don't see how you can change your business model unless there are different rules of the road.”
In one of the most contentious exchanges of the afternoon, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, accused Facebook of a “pervasive pattern of political bias” against conservatives. Zuckerberg disputed the allegation, saying he worked to prevent such bias despite acknowledging that Silicon Valley was “an extremely left-leaning place.”
Facebook's stock price, which had fallen sharply in recent weeks as the latest controversies built, rose sharply in trading Tuesday, ending the day up 4.5 percent.