Mark Zuckerberg’s two-day marathon of Congressional testimony was more exhausting than exhaustive.
The Facebook chief executive officer fielded questions from roughly 100 legislators in the House and Senate about his company’s data policies, business practices and, more specifically, about how it responded after learning that researcher Aleksandr Kogan handed user data to Cambridge Analytica.
After nearly five hours of testimony, the first day’s primary takeaway was that most of the Senate Commerce and Judiciary Committee has no fundamental idea how Facebook works. A large portion of the inquiries focused on basics. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R., Utah) asked how the social giant makes money — “Senator, we run ads,” Zuckerberg stated — and several officials admonished the company for selling off people’s data. (It doesn’t do that, according to Zuckerberg.)
On Wednesday, the House took up a thread that began in the Senate hearing: If thousands of people work on security and privacy (the Facebook workforce devoted to the area is set to expand to 20,000 people by the end of the year), why is the onus on users to flag questionable content before the social network takes action? According to Zuckerberg, even 20,000 workers are not enough to manually review tens of billions of pieces of content. The math seems to pan out.
The questions underscored a critical issue: Several legislators voiced their desire to regulate the tech sector — even though they clearly don’t fundamentally understand it. The complexity of the issue might help explain why technology companies have essentially operated unfettered, while other U.S. industries must conform to consumer privacy protection rules.
Zuckerberg seems open to the notion of more oversight, but wouldn’t fully commit to backing specific bills. “The Internet is growing in importance in people’s lives,” he said. “It’s inevitable that there will be regulation. We need to be careful about the regulation we put in place.”
Another pointed line of inquiry lambasted the company for not informing its users about Cambridge Analytica back in 2015, when it first learned Kogan had hustled the data to the political intelligence firm. Zuckerberg repeatedly explained that Facebook believed the parties had deleted the information, so it considered the matter closed. But that didn’t address Facebook’s lack of transparency, part of a pattern at the company, which has grappled repeatedly with data privacy issues over the years.
That lack of transparency undergirds the public’s growing distrust of technology companies, the senators and representatives said.
Still, Wall Street appeared pleased enough with the Facebook founder’s performance. The stock rose 4.5 percent on Tuesday and gained another 0.8 percent Wednesday, to close at $166.32, after the tech mogul was grilled by the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
In general, Zuckerberg tried to stick to his script — written testimony that was released Monday — but there were some additional highlights from the past two days, including:
- As one of its new initiatives, the social network has pledged to review every app that collects a lot of data. Zuckerberg emphasized this point several times.
- Rep. Anna Eshoo (D., Calif.) asked Zuckerberg if his own information was sold to “malicious third parties” in Cambridge Analytica’s unauthorized use of user data, which affected as many as 87 million people by Facebook’s count so far. The ceo confirmed that he was one of the 87 million.
- Zuckerberg looks to artificial intelligence to save the day. He repeatedly stated that his company employs AI tools to help monitor the network for suspicious or fake content, as well as bad actors operating under false accounts. But he also stressed that the current tools have limitations, so it will be an evolving process.
- Senators and representatives frequently discussed the need for “opt-in” laws — in which users expressly give permission for how their data will be used — and the Facebook ceo said he would support “in principle, but the details matter.”
- One of the biggest misconceptions about Facebook, according to Zuckerberg, is that the company sells people’s data. He emphasized numerous times that it does not. The network’s data collection and insights remain internal, he said. Advertisers do not get access to people’s individual data; they can only choose target audiences for their messages.
- Sen. Cory Booker (D., N.J.) and Rep. G. K. Butterfield (D., N.C.) expressed concerns about the lack of diversity at tech companies, particularly when players like Facebook must monitor various types of content — such as political issues — for authenticity.
- Multiple congressional representatives took Facebook to task over its string of apologies over privacy controversies, but said that it did not lead to enough action over the years.
All of that amounts to a crash course for many lawmakers who, if not the most technically savvy, certainly have a growing interest in how social media works — and in some cases doesn’t.