Lots of political grandstanding, evasive comments from the ‘accused’, missed opportunities to ask tougher questions - what else did anyone really expect from Mark Zuckerberg’s grilling by members of the U.S. Congress?
In fact, the most surprising thing to emerge was the sight of the Facebook CEO’s booster cushion on his chair, there presumably to ensure that the 5’7” Zuckerberg didn’t look small(er) and (more) vulnerable in front of the politicians bearing down on him from their bench above.
That aside, the tone was set early by Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune who obligingly trotted out the inevitable cliche:
Mr. Zuckerberg, in many ways you and the company that you created, the story that you've created represents the American Dream…it’s up to you, to ensure that that dream does not become a privacy nightmare for the scores of people who use Facebook.
Hey ho, it was always thus when politicians (with a few notable exceptions on both sides of the Atlantic) get put in charge of a tech-centric inquiry. The committee demographic yesterday in Congress was such that it was all-too-easy, as one Twitter meme later observed, to imagine one of the inquisitors leaning in to ask if Facebook was like that floppy disk thing from AOL that he or she had once seen on a magazine cover.
Democrat Senator Bill Nelson was the first to reach for the ‘big stick’ of threatening enforced regulation on Facebook and others:
I think you are genuine. I got that sense in conversing with you. You want to do the right thing. You want to enact reforms. We want to know if it's going to be enough…if Facebook and other online companies will not or cannot fix the privacy invasions, then we are going to have to, we, the Congress.
For his part, Zuckerberg sat and took all the preamble like a naughty schoolboy being given a ticking-off by his teachers. He came prepared with a set of crib-notes of what to say to certain questions - and what not to say.
The latter was inevitably more interesting than the former and on full view to photographers when the notes were left open on the desk during a break in proceedings.
Some of these had been given some messaging treatment. For example, after last week’s interview in which Zuckerberg initially said that U.S. Facebook users wouldn’t get all the benefits and protections of GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) as their European counterparts, his canned answers sheet warns him (in bold):
Don’t say we already do what GDPR requires.
Other talking points of note included a response to any suggestion that Facebook should be broken up:
U.S. tech companies key asset for America; break up strengthens Chinese companies.
And given Apple CEO Tim Cook’s open criticism of Facebook in recent weeks, Zuckerberg was also provided with a line of attack back at him, albeit one which was not aired:
Lots of stories about apps misusing Apple data, never seen Apple notify people. Important you hold everyone to the same standard.
Despite this preparation, there were a number of occasions when Zuckerberg failed to produce stats to answer what might have been assumed to be fairly obvious questions:
I don't have all the examples of apps that we've banned here, but if you would like, I can have my team follow up with you after this…I don't have the exact figure on how many times we have [required an audit to ensure the deletion of improperly transferred data].
Rather more crucially he wasn’t able to answer the question of whether Facebook employees had worked with Cambridge Analytica on the Trump election campaign:
I don't know that our employees were involved with Cambridge Analytica…I can certainly have my team get back to you on any specifics there that I don't know, sitting here today.
Options and responsibilities
Asked about comments by Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg that there might be a paid option on offer so that users could opt out of advertising, Zuckerberg was notably cool on the idea:
While there is some discomfort for sure with using information in making ads more relevant, the overwhelming feedback that we get from our community is that people would rather have us show relevant content there than not…I think what Sheryl was saying was that, in order to not run ads at all, we would still need some sort of business model.
We don't offer an option today for people to pay to not show ads. We think offering an ad-supported service is the most aligned with our mission of trying to help connect everyone in the world, because we want to offer a free service that everyone can afford. That's the only way that we can reach billions of people.
We have made a lot of mistakes in running the company. I think it's pretty much impossible, I believe, to start a company in your dorm room and then grow it to be at the scale that we're at now without making some mistakes. And, because our service is about helping people connect and information, those mistakes have been different in how we try not to make the same mistake multiple times. But in general, a lot of the mistakes are around how people connect to each other, just because of the nature of the service.
Overall, I would say that we're going through a broader philosophical shift in how we approach our responsibility as a company. For the first 10 or 12 years of the company, I viewed our responsibility as primarily building tools that, if we could put those tools in people's hands, then that would empower people to do good things. What I think we've learned now across a number of issues, not just data privacy, but also fake news and foreign interference in elections, is that we need to take a more proactive role and a broader view of our responsibility. It's not enough to just build tools. We need to make sure that they're used for good.
Republican Senator Orrin Hatch called yesterday’s hearing:
the most intense public scrutiny I've seen for a tech-related hearing since the Microsoft hearing that I chaired back in the late 1990s.
I’m not sure which Fake News version of the inquiry he was participating in then because what I saw was a relatively straightforward going over of familiar talking points that any decent lawyer or messaging strategist could have predicted in advance.
The only real surprise came when Zuckerberg revealed that Facebook may have been served with subpoenas from Special Counsel Robert Mueller as part of his investigation into the Trump election campaign and related issues. But even here he was evasive and sending out mixed messages:
I actually am not aware of a subpoena. I believe that there may be, but I know we're working with [the Special Counsel].
Most of Zuckerberg’s responses were honed versions of the comments he made to the media last week and which Sandberg took to the breakfast TV shows to air. Personally I find it unbelievable that he didn’t come to the hearing expecting to be asked whether Facebook staffers had worked with Cambridge Analytica, so his ‘someone will come back to you’ deferring response is open to accusations of stalling for time.
He also seemed remarkably clueless when it came to Palantir, the Big Data analytics firm owned by Peter Thiel, a Facebook board member. It seems there have been no conversations about that one around the board room table as Zuckerberg claimed:
I'm not really that familiar with what Palantir does.
If you say so...We'll have to leave it there as the Congressional committee didn't choose to push him much further on that one - or on very much else for that matter.
At the end of the day, Zuckerberg emerged from the first Congressional hearing without too much additional damage, other than becoming yesterday’s prevailing Twitter meme.
Crucially though, while he was being mocked, so too were his interrogators for their lack of tech savvy.
I’d score that a win for Zuck.