There was a very useful remark made by Representative Frank Pallone as the second and - for now - final day of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s appearance before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in the U.S. Congress:
My great fear is that we have this hearing today, there's a lot of press attention, but if all we do is have a hearing and then nothing happens, then that's not accomplishing anything...I've just seen it over and over again — that we have the hearings, and nothing happens.
Given the criticism from all sides that the first day of questioning of Zuckerberg saw him let off the hook on a number of key points as he pleaded ignorance and waved away difficult points with a promise that his team would follow-up later, that concern was well-voiced.
Unfortunately while there was some better questioning from a few of the legislators on the Committee on day two, there was also a significant uptick in politicians grandstanding and wasting much of their allocated 4 minutes of question time to pontificating. Take Representative John Shimkus who rambled on with stuff like:
First of all, I want to thank Facebook. You streamlined our Congressional Baseball Game last year. We've got the managers here, and I was told that, because of that, we raised an additional $100,000 for D.C. literacy and feeding kids and stuff.
The other thing is, I usually put my stuff up on the TV. I don't want to do it very much, because my dad — and he'd be mad if he went international, like you are — and he's been on Facebook for a long time. He's 88. It's been good for connecting with kids and grandkids. I just got my mother involved on an iPad and — because she can't handle a keyboard. And so — and I did this last week. So the — in this world — activity — I still think there is a positive benefit for my parents to be engaged on this platform.
Zuckerberg’s legal team must have struggled to contain their relief. Then there was Representative Elliot Engel who had a special request for Zuckerberg:
Mr. Zuckerberg, you have roots in my district, the 16th congressional district of New York. I know that you attended Ardsley High School and grew up in Westchester County. As you know, Westchester has a lot to offer, and I hope that you might commit to returning to Westchester County, perhaps to do a forum on this and some other things. I hope you would consider that. We'll be in touch with you. But I know that Ardsley High School's very proud of you.
That’s nice to know. Then there was Representative G.K. Butterfield who decided that the best use of his 4 minutes was to take Facebook to task over its lack of African-American representation in its staff, asking Zuckerberg to commit to setting up a meeting of tech CEOs to address racial diversity:
We've got to concentrate more on board membership for African-Americans, and also minorities at the entry level within your company. I was looking at your website a few minutes ago, and it looks like you list five individuals as leadership in your company, but none of them is African-American…this does not reflect America. Can you improve the numbers on your leadership team to be more diverse?
Do you plan to add an African-American to your leadership team in the foreseeable future? And will you commit that you will continue to work with us, the Congressional Black Caucus, to increase diversity within your company that you're so proud of?
Now, diversity, in all its forms, is clearly a hugely important issue, particularly given Silicon Valley’s lamentable track record here. But was yesterday's hearing really the best time to add this into an already heady mix? There was a specific agenda. As the Chair of the Committee, Representative Greg Walden, told Zuckerberg at the start of the session:
We've called you here today for two reasons. One is to examine the alarming reports regarding breaches of trust between your company, one of the biggest and most powerful in the world, and its users. And the second reason is to widen our lens to larger questions about the fundamental relationship tech companies have with their users.
Fortunately others were more up to speed with what needed to be done. Representative Diana Degette was on particularly sharp form as she warned Zuckerberg:
I'm going to ask you a whole series of fairly quick questions. They should only require yes-or-no answers.
Well, maybe they should, but she was out of luck as Zuckerberg obfuscated on various points. Her patience ran out when quizzing him about a class action suit that Facebook had been involved with and of which Zuckerberg claimed ignorance. Degette’s incredulous response:
Do you — you're — you're the CEO of the company, correct?
But the biggest blow scored came from Representative Kathy Castor who asked:
Facebook now has evolved to a place where you are tracking everyone. You are collecting data on just about everybody. Yes, we understand the Facebook users that proactively sign in, they're in part of that platform, but you're following Facebook users even after they log off of that platform and application, and you are collecting personal information on people who do not even have Facebook accounts. Isn’t that right?
It was a question which elicited the unbelievable response from Zuckerberg:
I'm not sure. I don't think that that's what we're tracking.
Well, if he doesn't know...
Pallone’s concerns about this being essentially a ‘show trial’ with no practical outcomes may yet prove well-founded. Republican Representatives wanted to know why Facebook worked with the Obama campaign and claimed that the company censored right wing commentators; Democrats wanted to know why Facebook worked with Cambridge Analytica to support the Trump campaign and why it didn’t clamp down more on hate speech. It was predictable along party lines.
The grandstanding and rambling anecdotes - “When I first got into public office, the internet was really kicking off…” etc etc - were a pointless use of valuable time. With a few notable exceptions, most of politicos on the Committee appeared not to have done their homework and relied on well-aired talking points, none of which took anyone any further on.
While I don’t imagine anyone is buying the ‘tech Jimmy Stewart’ routine, when Mr Zuckerberg went home from Washington, Facebook’s share price rose. As a short term damage limitation exercise, it’s not been a bad couple of days for Facebook.
Longer term it’s to be hoped that others, such as the UK government’s Information Commissioner’s Office are more challenging in their inquiries. Mind you, the best that tough-talking UK Digital Minister Matt Hancock could manage yesterday was an undefined threat to "hold their feet to the fire" if Facebook doesn't buck up its ideas. Scary stuff, eh? That'll learn them!