In a marathon hearing of Congress, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg came under fire from dozens of U.S lawmakers over his company’s data-collection practices and its role in political interference even as he faced a Washington divided over how to regulate the digital economy.
“We have made a lot of mistakes in running the company,” the 33-year-old Silicon Valley billionaire told a packed joint hearing of the Senate judiciary and commerce committees that spanned more than five hours. Facebook, he said, is “going through a broader philosophical shift in how we approach our responsibility as a company.”
Mr. Zuckerberg, who swapped his t-shirt and jeans for a dark blue suit, seemed calm and contrite for his first appearance on Capitol Hill. He stuck largely to the script of his prepared remarks, apologizing for being slow to react to revelations that foreign actors had abused Facebook’s platform and misused personal data. Repeatedly invoking his company’s humble beginnings in his Harvard University dorm room, he said the company now realizes it needs to take more responsibility for content published on its platform and offered to work with Congress to craft new regulations for social-media firms.
In one of the day’s most lively exchanges, Louisiana Republican John Kennedy told Mr. Zuckerberg: “I don’t want to vote to have to regulate Facebook, but by God I will.”
Mr. Zuckerberg stopped short of endorsing outright many of the proposed regulatory interventions, including a children’s online privacy bill of rights. He was also defensive when pressed several times about how much control Facebook gives users over their own data and said he does not expect Facebook will ever do away completely with a business model that relies on targeting advertising to users based on their personal data in favour of a paid subscription model with no ads. “There will always be a version of Facebook that is free,” he said.
The grilling by more than half the U.S. Senate capped off a gruelling few weeks for Facebook. The social-media giant has faced a fierce global backlash over revelations that personal information from as many as 87 million of its users was collected through a personality quiz developed by academic Alexandr Kogan and later shared with British political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, which was hired by Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Facebook was at the center of an indictment issued last month by special counsel Robert Mueller against the Kremlin-linked Internet Research Agency and 13 of its employees for interfering in the election. Mr. Zuckerberg said Facebook executives are working with Mr. Mueller’s probe and that while he had not been questioned by prosecutors, other company executives had.
He also said it was possible that the data of some of the nearly 126 million U.S. voters who saw politically charged Facebook ads bought by the Russian actors during the campaign were also improperly shared with Cambridge Analytica, raising fresh questions about the influence of social-media companies in the vote.
As Mr. Zuckerberg heads into a second day of Congressional hearings, this time in front of a House of Representatives committee, the biggest question for Facebook remains whether its chief executive has persuaded lawmakers to hold off on heavy-handed regulations.
Mr. Kennedy is among several senators that pressed the tech executive to simplify his firm’s terms of service and data collection policies, changes Mr. Zuckerberg insisted Facebook has already made. “Your user agreement sucks,” Mr. Kennedy said.
Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar, one of the authors of a political ads transparency bill that both Facebook and Twitter have backed, asked Mr. Zuckerberg whether he would support rules requiring companies to notify users within 72 hours if their data had been misused by third-parties. “That makes sense to me,” he said.
Texas Republican Ted Cruz questioned Mr. Zuckerberg about whether his company was blocking Conservative voices, including a restricting traffic to a Facebook page for Diamond and Silk, a popular African-American female duo who are vocal supporters of Mr. Trump, and whether Palmer Luckey, a former executive who had backed Mr. Trump, was fired for political reasons.
Mr. Zuckerberg called Mr. Luckey’s departure a personnel matter that did not involve political affiliation, but said one of his chief worries was how to build a “platform for all ideas” in the San Francisco Bay Area, which he called an “extremely left-leaning place.”
As he faces a deeply divided Congress, Mr. Zuckerberg must keep a delicate balance in deciding in how much to support calls to more closely police content on Facebook. Nebraska Republican Ben Sasse warned that too much self-policing could silence free speech on sensitive political issues such as abortion.
“Whenever a controversy like this rises, there’s always a danger that Congress’s response will be to step in and overregulate,” said Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, who called Mr. Zuckerberg’s grilling “the most intense public scrutiny for a tech-related hearing” since a federal antitrust investigation into Microsoft in the late 1990s.
Analysts said Mr. Zuckerberg’s openness to discussing regulations likely helped quell some of the political backlash. “Had he come across as being petulant, as saying we’re above government, I think the public may have turned against the technology industry and said: Of course we have to regulate these guys,” said Mark Harkins, a former Congressional chief of staff who is now a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute.
Nicol Turner-Lee, a fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Center for Technology Innovation, said Mr. Zuckerberg seemed to succeed in disarming members of Congress who were pushing for a more aggressive schedule to start regulating social media companies. “But I think there will be some tensions between what that regulation looks like and what Facebook can afford to do and still maintain its robust business model,” she said.