Four moments where Congress made Mark Zuckerberg break a sweat
It probably says something about the nature of proceedings that the most uncomfortable Mark Zuckerberg looked at the first of his two congressional hearings was when he had dozens of cameras pointed in his face as he arrived.
Any hope that the five-hour hearing would extract anything useful from the Facebook CEO quickly evaporated when it was revealed that the 44 senators (whose understanding of the internet often seemed patchy at best) seeking to grill Zuckerberg would get just five minutes each. Zuckerberg, who had apparently spent the last few days being trained for his moment in the spotlight, effectively managed to play down the clock for the most part with a set of carefully prepared notes captured here:
In fact it was so easy going for Zuckerberg that Facebook shares went up in value by $3 billion over the duration of the session. That wasn’t supposed to happen.
But the smartest senators realised that for their fleeting moment should be used quickly and effectively as soundbite theatre. The time limit still blunted their effectiveness, and they hardly made Zuckerberg sweat – but they did at least make him lightly perspire. Here are the best of them:
Lindsey Graham pushes Zuckerberg into a corner about its lack of competition
Republican senator Lindsey Graham ably tried to get Zuckerberg to admit Facebook’s market dominance – which wasn’t really in the CEO’s interests to let happen. Zuckerberg tried to list the likes of Microsoft and Amazon, but was abruptly cut off by Graham who explained he was looking for a company that offers a similar product to Facebook.
After Zuckerberg dropped a stat that the average American uses eight different apps to communicate with friends, Graham cut to the chase asking “You don’t think you have a monopoly?”
Zuckerberg’s response was exactly the kind of thing his minders would have hoped for – “It certainly doesn’t feel like that to me” – but the laughter in the hall certainly proved he was in a minority of one on that point.
Richard Durbin proves Zuckerberg likes his privacy after all
Eight years ago, Mark Zuckerberg claimed that privacy was no longer a “social norm”. Senator Richard Durbin put that belief to the test by asking Zuckerberg some tough personal questions that briefly left him wrong-footed. “Mr. Zuckerberg, would you be comfortable sharing with us the name of the hotel you stayed in last night?” After a long, thoughtful pause Zuckerberg finally laughed and said “no.”
Durbin continued: “If you messaged anybody this week, would you share with us the names of the people you’ve messaged?” Zuckerberg, sensing the theme was quicker in response: “Senator, no. I would probably not choose to do that publicly, here.”
The rest of the response was Zuckerberg bang on script, but this moment of discomfort will certainly made for a useful clip next time Facebook’s privacy policies are called into question.
Ted Cruz presses on Facebook biases
Former Republican presidential nominee Ted Cruz pushed Zuckerberg on more partisan lines, highlighting the 2016 reports of Facebook burying conservative news and a number of high profile right wing bans on the site.
Cheaply, but effectively, Cruz then went on to ambush Zuckerberg with a number of direct questions about left-wing pages that had been similarly taken down:
CRUZ: Let me — let me ask this question: Are you aware of any ad or page that has been taken down from Planned Parenthood?
ZUCKERBERG: Senator, I’m not. But let me just…
CRUZ: How about moveon.org?
CRUZ: How about moveon.org?
ZUCKERBERG: I’m not specifically aware of those…
CRUZ: How about any Democratic candidate for office?
ZUCKERBERG: I’m not specifically aware. I mean, I’m not sure.
Cruz then asked about Facebook’s hiring policy, suggesting that political leanings of the employees might be partly to blame for this. “No, Senator. We do not generally ask people about their political orientation when they’re joining the company,” Zuckerberg responded. At that point, Cruz sprung another trap, asking about the firing of Oculus Rift creator Palmer Luckey, a high-profile supporter of Donald Trump:
CRUZ: Why was Palmer Luckey fired?
ZUCKERBERG: That is a specific personnel matter that seems like it would be inappropriate to speak to here.
CRUZ: You just made a specific representation, that you didn’t make decisions based on political views. Is that accurate?
ZUCKERBERG: Well, I can — I can commit that it was not because of a political view.
At the end of Cruz’s five minutes, chairman of the commerce committee John Thune offered Zuckerberg a five-minute break. “Sure. I mean, that was — that was pretty good,” Zuckerberg replied. “So. All right.”
John Kennedy goes in with both barrels: “Your user agreement sucks”
Senator John Kennedy began his five minutes with a gentle opener: “Mr Zuckerberg, I come in peace,” he said to laughter in the room. But it quickly became a lot less peaceful. “I don’t want to vote to have to regulate Facebook, but by God I will,” he continued. “Here’s what everybody’s been trying to tell you today, and — and I say this gently. Your user agreement sucks.
“You’re — you — you can spot me 75 IQ points, if I can figure it out, you can figure it out. The purpose of that user agreement is to cover Facebook’s rear end. It’s not to inform your users about their rights. Now, you know that and I know that. I’m going to suggest to you that you go back home and rewrite it. And tell your $1,200 an hour lawyers, no disrespect. They’re good. But — but tell them you want it written in English and non-Swahili, so the average American can understand it. That would be a start.”
It was great oratory, but its impact on Zuckerberg’s responses were negligible. To six of the follow-up questions, Zuckerberg gave the same sentiment: we already let you do that.
And despite looking chastened, Zuckerberg didn’t promise to improve on Facebook’s impenetrable terms and conditions, either.
That can broadly sum up the hearing. Without the same kind of unlimited time lawmakers got with Bill Gates back in 1998, Zuckerberg questioning remained superficial rather than forensic.
Zuckerberg returns to Congress today, for a grilling by the House Energy and Commerce Committee at 3PM UK time.