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Opinion 9 takeaways from Zuckerberg’s testimony before Congress

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a joint hearing of the Commerce and Judiciary committees on Capitol Hill on April 10. (Alex Brandon/AP)

In a packed hearing room, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is facing an army of U.S. senators — members of both the Commerce and Judiciary committees — questioning him about his company’s efforts to protect privacy and prevent foreign manipulation of the election. The testimony will go on for some time, but here are some initial observations:

First, Zuckerberg is a stiff, almost robotic witness. His awkwardness, however, is counterbalanced by a thicket of apologies. Not detecting the Russian interference in the 2016 election, he said, was one of his greatest regrets. If confronted with a situation similar to the Cambridge Analytica, he said he now would alert users whose information had been breached. He was generally effective in clamping down on his natural arrogance. He recognized that the company must be more “proactive.” He said, “It’s not enough to build tools.” He disclosed that Facebook is hiring thousands of people to work on security.

Second, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) drew blood when needling Facebook about its potential status as a monopoly. Who’s your competitor? Zuckerberg begged off, citing lots of different apps that overlap its business. Don’t you feel like you are a monopoly? Zuckerberg responded, “It certainly doesn’t feel like that to me.” Graham, however, made his point: Without another platform that does essentially what Facebook does, there is less incentive for Facebook to get its act together.

When Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) asked Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg whether he felt Facebook is a monopoly in the social media industry, Mark Zuckerberg said no. (Video: The Washington Post)

Third, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) asked if users affected by the Cambridge Analytica breach were grouped in certain states. He said he did not know but would find out. Under questioning, he also said that it is possible the 126 million users who were exposed to Russian bots/fake news could overlap with those whose data had been given to Cambridge Analytica. That certainly goes directly to the issue of how effective Russia was in tipping the election that essentially came down to less than 80,000 votes in three states.

Fourth, it is evident that very few if any of the lawmakers have a sophisticated understanding of how Facebook works. They are in a poor position, then, to evaluate how effectively Facebook is addressing the problem and what they need to require as a matter of law.

Fifth, pressed on whether European legislation should come to the United States, he deflected the questions but conceded he would be willing to work with Congress on legislation and is, with regard to identifying advertisers, instituting portions of the proposed Honest Ads Act.

Sixth, challenged about Facebook’s business model, he said that Facebook is free because it sells ads. He reiterated that if it cannot gather data it would have to charge, something it never intends to do. This goes to the heart of the matter. Facebook’s business model and users’ absolute control of their information are in tension with one another. That poses a problem for Facebook as it comes under scrutiny for enabling foreign election meddling and monetizing users’ information. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) declared that Facebook is essentially in the business of monetizing user information and therefore need to be regulated. Zuckerberg hedged when asked if he agreed to a series of regulatory proposals.

Seventh, under questioning from Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), he conceded that Facebook is in fact responsible for content on its platform, a complete shift from its protected status as an Internet platform, not a publisher (e.g. cannot be sued for libel).

Eighth, Zuckerberg made clear that artificial intelligence is the key to much of what is being demanded, namely eliminating hate speech, foreign manipulation and terrorist threats. That may be of comfort to some, but it is equally true that AI can enable others to manipulate users and micro-target them. As Zuckerberg put it, there is an “arms race” between platforms and those who want to reach its users for nefarious reasons.

Ninth, Blumenthal accused Facebook of violating its consent decree with the Federal Trade Commission by its terms of service with the app developer who conveyed user information to Cambridge Analytica. Zuckerberg seemed hesitant but deflected the question, choosing not to argue with the former prosecutor.

Read more:

Sandy Parakilas: I worked at Facebook. I know how Cambridge Analytica could have happened.

Karen Attiah: It’s not just America: Zuckerberg has to answer for Facebook’s actions around the world

Anne Applebaum: Facebook makes the Snowden affair look quaint