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Auto, tobacco and steel executives have faced the cameras and the probing questions of politicians. What can the high-tech captain of Silicon Valley learn from the past?

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In this 1994 photo, the heads of the United States' largest cigarette companies are sworn in for a congressional hearing.John Duricka/AP

The congressional hearing − lawmakers leaning purposefully into microphones, witnesses roasting in big leather chairs, a gaggle of reporters crowded around a cherrywood table, lobbyists filling the small chamber or pacing the marble floors outside the doors − is a peculiarly American political institution. But few congressional hearings in U.S. history will be as peculiar as the confrontation between the United States Congress and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg that is likely to occur before long.

Mr. Zuckerberg, who is 33 years old and the personification of 21st-century high-tech promise and threat, will be in the spotlight in Congress, which is 229 years old and the living but beleaguered legacy of 18th-century idealism and reform. And in that setting, men and women with almost no technological sophistication will question a man whose tech vision reshaped the way Americans, and the world, communicate, share information and organize knowledge.

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Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg.MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Given the gravitational pull of Washington and the furor over Facebook and privacy, Mr. Zuckerberg will find it hard to avoid the call from lawmakers to testify in a congressional hearing. That appearance will be part spectacle, part theatre, part seminar, part prosecution. The Facebook pioneer will be respectful, the lawmakers relentless. The television cameras will whir, the social-media messages will fly. In one celebrated 1991 Senate hearing, Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas complained he was the victim of a “high-tech lynching.” The Zuckerberg hearing instead will be an assault on a high-tech trailblazer.

Politics has always reflected the latest technology yet seldom has put that technology on trial. That’s part of the fascination with this confrontation. But the high-tech hearings prompted by the revelations that Facebook users’ personal information was used for manipulative political purposes by Cambridge Analytica are part of a tradition of high-stakes, high-drama and high-profile hearings that have shaped American history.

“Oversight is one of our jobs, and I don’t think we do enough of it,” said Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, who as chairman of the permanent subcommittee on investigations conducts these kinds of hearings but who as the chief American trade negotiator in the George H. W. Bush years often appeared before congressional hearings. “It’s necessary for us to hold hearings to be able to legislate − and we need to do more of them so we can have a substantive basis for legislating on the Internet in general and on Facebook in particular. These are not events to bring celebrities before us, but to unearth information and shape our work.”

During the tumultuous first two years of the Civil War (1861-63), Congress held only 37 hearings. Often today there are that many hearings in a single week, though most of them attract little attention except from special-interest lobby groups.

But over the years, congressional hearings have grown in importance and impact. They put the spotlight on the safety of automobiles and cigarettes. They shook the presidential administrations of Richard Nixon (over Watergate), Ronald Reagan (over the Iran-Contra affair) and Bill Clinton (over his conduct with a White House intern). And in the first televised hearings in history, they brought the political demise of a senator (Joseph McCarthy) and ended the red-baiting stain he placed on postwar America (McCarthyism).

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The celebrated 1954 hearings to examine security in the U.S. Army turned into a debacle for McCarthyism.AP

That’s because a series of celebrated 1954 hearings to examine security in the U.S. Army turned into a debacle for the Wisconsin Republican after a Boston lawyer, Joseph Welch, turned the tables on the senator and in the course of a particularly odious line of questioning addressed the senator, saying, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” Before the year was out, the Senate voted to censure Mr. McCarthy.

During the Korean War, lawmakers used congressional hearings such as the ones Mr. Zuckerberg and his high-tech CEO colleagues face to excoriate steel-company executives for excess profits and stingy payrolls during a national crisis. “The steel executives were unwilling to give unionized workers fair pay, but at the same time were extracting as much money as possible because we needed the steel during the war,” said Ken Gormley, the Duquesne University president who is regarded as an expert on the controversy. “Congress was trying to help resolve a national dispute.”

During the energy crisis a half-century ago, the Senate commerce committee summoned the chiefs of Ford, General Motors and Chrysler to explain why they hadn’t boosted gasoline efficiency in their automobiles only to hear Senator Ernest Hollings, the blunt Democrat from South Carolina, tell them he didn’t believe they would ever voluntarily increase fuel efficiency. Congress eventually passed minimum fuel-economy standards that were signed into law by a president from the auto-producing state of Michigan, Gerald Ford.

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Ralph Nader testified in 1966 about automobile safety.AP

But the most famous auto-related hearings occurred a decade earlier just after Ralph Nader published his Unsafe at Any Speed, a book that carried the devastating subtitle of The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile and took special aim at the dangers of the Corvair, a sporty Chevrolet popular at the time. The hearings, which prompted the GM president to apologize to Mr. Nader, led to new safety laws and the requirement that cars carry seat belts.

The lessons from these episodes are clear and very simple for Mr. Zuckerberg: Be clear. Be concise. Be honest. Be conventionally dressed (no grey T-shirt for this appearance). And above all: Be respectful, even reverential, of the tradition of congressional hearings, of the prerogatives of lawmakers and of the high purpose of these sessions.

“Congressional hearings are used not only to keep government honest,” said L. Sandy Maisel, a political scientist at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. “They’re used also to keep private citizens and business honest.”

For that reason, cigarette-company executives have been repeated witnesses in these sessions, often receiving hostile receptions. The tobacco proceedings in April, 1994, opened in an ominous tone for these business leaders, with Democratic Representative Henry Waxman of California, chairman of a House of Representatives health subcommittee, warning the executives:

“This hearing marks the beginning of a new relationship between Congress and the tobacco companies. The old rules are out, the standards that apply to every other company are in. We look forward to hearing the testimony this morning, and to working with these companies to begin to reduce the extraordinary public-health threat that tobacco poses.”

In those hearings, Mr. Waxman, known as an especially imaginative and aggressive interrogator, asked the chairman of Lorillard Tobacco Co. whether he believed his product caused cancer. “I do not believe that,” answered Andrew Tisch, who in the next exchange was asked if he felt that he was in that belief isolated from the scientific consensus. Mr. Tisch’s answer: “I do, sir.”

Soon Mr. Zuckerberg will join the congressional hearing hot seats that were once occupied by the six other tobacco executives who defended their industry in that 1994 hearing, by countless telecommunications officials explaining their anti-competitiveness activities, and by Martin Shkreli, the Turing Pharmaceuticals executive who presided over a 5,000-per-cent increase in the price of Daraprim, an anti-parasitic sometimes prescribed to patients suffering from AIDS. Mr. Shkreli chose a year ago to invoke his right to remain silent. Besieged by privacy advocates and consumers alike, Mr. Zuckerberg almost certainly will not be able to do the same.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg apologizes for mistakes his company made in how it handled data belonging to 50 million of its users and promises tougher steps to restrict developers' access to such information.


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