with Tonya Riley

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg testified on Oct. 23 before the House Financial Services Committee on a proposal for digital currency, Libra. (Reuters)

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Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg floundered as Democratic lawmakers grilled him on the company’s checkered track record on civil rights during a tense, six-hour-long Capitol Hill hearing yesterday. 

The tech titan was visibly flustered during a blistering line of questioning from Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), who pressed him on Facebook’s ongoing civil rights audit that aims to take stock of the company's policies, content and internal operations. Facebook has touted the audit as a signal of its commitment to diversity as it fights allegations its biased against minorities. But Zuckerberg stumbled as Beatty asked him to name the recommendations from the audit’s recent edition. He couldn’t name the law firm that is conducting it. 

“It’s almost like you think this is a joke,” Beatty slammed. “When you have ruined the lives of many people, discriminated against them.” 

Zuckerberg also said he didn’t know what percentage of Facebook users are African American, even though the congresswoman said he was recently sent a report from Pew Research that included that data. 

“Maybe you just don’t read a lot of things that deal with civil rights and African Americans,” Beatty added, calling his responses “appalling and disgusting.” 

Zuckerberg’s strained responses will only provide more ammunition to critics who say the social network isn’t doing enough to keep minorities safe online. Facebook could also see its political headaches intensify amid broad concerns about hate speech on the platform and evidence that African Americans were disproportionately targeted by Russian actors interfering on the company’s platforms in the 2016 election. 

Zuckerberg also couldn't answer questions about diversity among Facebook's partners. Beatty cut him off as the Facebook CEO struggled to answer whether any of Facebook's cash is managed by diverse-owned companies. He said he didn't know how many of the law firms with which the company works are minority-owned, or how many women and minorities work on Facebook's legal cases. 

Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) pressed Zuckerberg on the lack of civil rights experience among the company's senior leadership. Zuckerberg said there are employees with that experience. Zuckerberg admitted, however, that he was unaware of whether any of the companies Facebook is partnering with to launch its digital currency through the Libra Association are led by people of color, women or people who identify as LGBT. 

“Facebook's diversity failures include an abysmal record of hiring and promoting people of color and women, contracting with diverse suppliers and investing in a diverse asset managers,” Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and chair of the House Financial Services Committee said at the conclusion of the hearing. 

Zuckerberg's lack of preparation on diversity issues was especially striking because lawmakers announced the hearing would be focused on discrimination in housing advertising. As my colleague Tony Romm noted, lawmakers handed Zuckerberg a beating on a broad range of issues outside of the hearing's topics — but it's fair to say Facebook and Zuckerberg should have known these kinds of questions were coming. 

The tech titan couldn’t have picked a worse time to be caught off guard. There’s a growing rift between Facebook and civil rights groups over Zuckerberg’s recent remarks on free speech. The groups say Facebook is abdicating its responsibility to protect people of color by not subjecting political posts to its community standards in many cases or fact-check political ads.

Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) raised those concerns during yesterday’s hearing, saying Facebook permits a “lower standard for truthfulness and decency” for politicians, saying: “It is hate speech, it’s hate, and it’s leading to violence and death threats in my office.”

Muslim Advocates, a civil rights group that has been critical of Facebook, said Zuckerberg’s responses at yesterday's hearing showed he “abdicated his responsibility.”

“Facebook needs to immediately end its policy allowing false ads and must enforce its community standards robustly and consistently before more people are put in harm’s way,” the group said in a statement. 

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) also pressed Zuckerberg on Facebook's fact-checking policy in a fiery exchange, pressing him to answer in simple yes or no form whether Facebook intended to allow false content to remain on its platform.

“Well Congresswoman, I think lying is bad and I think if you were to run an ad that had a lie, that would be bad. That's different from it being — from it — in our position the right thing to do to prevent your constituents or people in an election from seeing that you have lied,” Zuckerberg said. 

Lawmakers also pressed Zuckerberg on Facebook's handling of hate speech, which has long been a concern among civil rights leaders. Tlaib asked Zuckerberg to explain whether a photo of a man holding a rifle outside a mosque is permitted on the social-networking site. 

“I’m not sure I’m in a position right now to evaluate any given post against all the different standards right now,” Zuckerberg replied. 

Rep. Sean Casten (D-Ill.) called Zuckerberg's response "rather shocking" when he pressed him on whether Facebook would allow a member of the American Nazi Party running for office to purchase an ad that included hate speech otherwise prohibited.

“Congressman, I think that depends on a bunch of specifics that I’m not familiar with this case and can’t answer to,” Zuckerberg said.

RANT AND RAVE

The Verge's Casey Newton:

Others couldn't help but wonder what role the hearing would play in a sequel to "The Social Network." Rep. Denver Riggleman (R-Va.) tried to get ahead of casting. Bloomberg's Kurt Wagner:

 

But maybe the problem was really just a generational divide. Journalist Irin Carmon:

BITS, NIBBLES AND BYTES

BITS: Zuckerberg doubled down on his defense of Facebook’s plans to push into cryptocurrency as lawmakers from both parties expressed concerns about Libra.

The CEO said that Libra wouldn’t launch anywhere in the world without approval from U.S. regulators — but he did not specify which regulators and wouldn’t commit to waiting for a green light from Congress. The remarks did little to reassure Democrats, who tore into the tech titan.

“Facebook’s slogan for a long time was ‘move fast, break things.’ Mr. Zuckerberg — we do not want to break the international monetary system,” said Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.) 

“When we have blurred the lines between banking and commerce, we’ve run into problems,” said Rep. Chuy Garcia (D-Ill.), who asked Zuckerberg whether the Securities and Exchange Commission should regulate Libra as a bank. “Facebook has operated as a shadow government with you as its head.” 

Zuckerberg dodged the question.

Republicans were more receptive to Facebook's plans, but had questions about why the Libra coalition was based in Switzerland.

“There is a very competitive environment we have around the globe with enormous competition … so I think it's important that we encourage responsible innovation here in the United States,” said Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.).

NIBBLES: Facebook will launch a “News” tab on Friday curating stories from hundreds of organizations, some of which Facebook will pay for supplying content, people familiar with the plan tell my colleague Craig Timberg. The platform's shift back to news delivery comes as it endures federal and state antitrust scrutiny for its impact on the advertising industry. Facebook's critics accuse the company of "killing" local news as advertisers shift away from newspapers and toward digital platforms. 

The list of participating news organizations, initially totaling about 200, will include The Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and BuzzFeed News as well as local news outlets, people familiar with the project say. But critics say the change could disproportionately benefit already lucrative media companies. While some partners will receive payments of up to millions of dollars, others will be limited to generating revenue only when Facebook chooses to feature their stories. 

“We’ve got to have this for the whole news ecosystem,” said David Chavern, president and chief executive of the News Media Alliance, representing nearly 2,000 U.S.-based news organizations. “So while it’s a start, and a good start, it’s not a comprehensive solution.”

The House antitrust subcommittee held a hearing this summer about Big Tech’s impact on news as part of its broad probe of competition in Silicon Valley.

Facebook declined to comment on the service's launch date or participants, but Zuckerberg hinted at the announcement during a congressional hearing yesterday. The CEO will appear at an event in New York on Friday with the chief executive of the Wall Street Journal's parent company.

BYTES: Amazon retailers continue to offer clothing from Bangladeshi factories that most major U.S. retailers stopped doing business with because of safety standards, Justin Scheck, Jon Emont and Alexandra Berzon at the Wall Street Journal found. The questionable sourcing practices raise concerns over the company's oversight of its third-party sellers as it faces scrutiny from regulators in Washington.

The Journal found apparel on Amazon from factories flagged by safety-monitoring groups for safety problems including crumbling buildings, broken alarms, and missing sprinklers and fire barriers. Amazon lays out general sourcing requirements for suppliers and has conducted 150 audits of Bangladeshi suppliers in the past year, the company tells the Journal. But it doesn't explicitly monitor that third-party sellers, which sourced about two-thirds of the items identified by the Journal, comply with guidelines banning products that involve child or forced labor.

“The standards require selling partners to consistently monitor and enforce those standards in their own operations and supply chain,” Amazon told the Journal. Amazon has removed some listings flagged by the Journal and is in the process of reviewing others.

The Journal also found some items sourced from the factories in question on Walmart.com and one banned factory on Target’s website, even though the companies have agreed to honor bans posed by two safety groups. Many retailers stopped doing business with the factories after a 2013 factory collapse killed more than 1,100 people in Bangladesh, just as Amazon was launching its own clothing retail strategy. Walmart spokeswoman Marilee McInnis told the Journal the company was looking into the items for sale directly by Walmart; Target removed its listing after the Journal flagged it but declined to comment.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.

PUBLIC CLOUD

-- The White House praised Google for a breakthrough the company claims allows its quantum computing processor to complete a task that would take a traditional supercomputer about 10,000 years in just 200 seconds.  The breakthrough, which Google calls "quantum supremacy," could revolutionize medicine, artificial intelligence and encryption one day, my colleague Sarah Kaplan reports.

The Trump administration has made a strong push for quantum research and private-public partnerships in order to compete with China. 

"This critical milestone verifying quantum computational supremacy shows America’s unparalleled innovation ecosystem at work," Michael Kratsios, Chief Technology Officer of the United States said in a statement. "We will continue to embrace the strong public and private partnerships that produce incredible innovations and make America the world leader in technology,” 

Kratsios points out that the Google team built on federally funded research and used resources from the Department of Energy and NASA to verify its results. The White House signed a law dedicating $1.2 billion in quantum research funding over the next five years in December and recently launched an advisory committee to push U.S. quantum research forward. 

Ivanka Trump, daughter of President Trump and White House Advisor, tweeted about the breakthrough:

IBM  has alleged that Google's claims of "quantum supremacy" are based on a false comparison and that it's supercomputer, Summit would take 2.5 days not 10,000 years to complete the same equation.

— More news from the public sector:

PRIVATE CLOUD

— News from the private sector:

FAST FWD

Zuckerberg wasn't the only big tech name on the Hill yesterday. Reddit co-founder and venture capitalist Alexis Ohanian was there with a group of "dadvocates” advocating for paid family leave.

The group spent the day meeting with House and Senate lawmakers, Roll Call reported.

Ohanian posted about the visit on Instagram:

— More news about tech workforce and culture:

#TRENDING

—  Tech news generating buzz around the Web:

CHECK-INS

— Today

  • The Senate Banking Committee will host a hearing to examine data ownership, focusing on exploring implications for data privacy rights and data valuation at 10 a.m.

  •  Amazon and Twitter will announce their third-quarter earnings today.

— Coming up:

  • The House Energy and Commerce Communications and Technology Subcommittee will hold a hearing entitled “Repurposing the C-Band to Benefit all Americans” on Tuesday, October 29, at 10 a.m.

WIRED IN

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg explained Facebook's policy of not fact checking politicians' speech in a House hearing on Oct. 23.

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg explained Facebook's policy of not fact checking politicians' speech in a House hearing on Oct. 23. (Reuters)

2020 candidate Beto O'Rourke makes his Washington Post TikTok debut: