Five things to watch in Zuckerberg's testimony

Five things to watch in Zuckerberg's testimony
© Greg Nash

Facebook CEO Mark ZuckerbergMark Elliot ZuckerbergHow tech reached a breaking point with Infowars Why we should not want Facebook, or any online platform, to ‘save’ us from Alex Jones Don't let Big Tech become Big Brother MORE will feel the glare of the national spotlight on Tuesday as he testifies to Congress for the first time.

Lawmakers are demanding answers about how Cambridge Analytica, a British data firm hired by the Trump campaign, was able to improperly obtain data on upwards of 87 million Facebook users.

The hearings are certain to produce a media spectacle, with wall-to-wall coverage expected on cable news. Zuckerberg’s initial trip to Capitol Hill on Monday provided a taste of what’s to come, with a crush of reporters and cameras trailing his every move.

If Zuckerberg doesn’t play his cards correctly, Facebook’s reputation and stock price could suffer. Already, some lawmakers have suggested new regulations on tech companies might be needed.

Here are five things to watch for as Zuckerberg takes the witness stand.


How does Zuckerberg handle the pressure?

Zuckerberg has never before faced the kind of adversarial questioning he’s likely to receive from lawmakers during the hearings on Tuesday and Wednesday.

His tone and attitude will be extremely important, particularly given the outrage in Congress over the data scandal and Russia’s election interference. If Zuckerberg, 33, comes across as arrogant, the hearings could turn into a debacle for Facebook, experts say.

“He’s got to try to be authentic and humble and avoid any degree of arrogance and glib answers. He’s got to be thoughtful and avoid what happened to Bill Gates in the antitrust case. He was arrogant and slouched,” said Lanny Davis, a crisis communications expert and columnist for The Hill. 

Zuckerberg has been practicing for his testimony with Facebook’s Washington team and advisers have urged him to be humble, according to The New York Times.

In that vein, Zuckerberg is poised to begin his testimony with an apology, according to his prepared remarks for the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

“We didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibility, and that was a big mistake. It was my mistake, and I’m sorry. I started Facebook, I run it, and I’m responsible for what happens here,” Zuckerberg plans to say.


How aggressively do lawmakers question him?

Lawmakers for years have clamored to hear from Zuckerberg directly about Facebook’s practices. Now, more than 14 years after the company launched, they will get their chance.

Senators will get the first crack at Zuckerberg on Tuesday in a joint hearing of the Senate Judiciary and Commerce committees.

Ahead of the hearing, members like Sens. Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyMake the moon a refueling station — then head to Mars Dems push FEMA on housing help for displaced Puerto Ricans Overnight Energy: Trump moves to roll back Obama auto emissions standards | California vows to sue | Senate Dem looks to block plan in Congress MORE (D-Mass.) and John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (R-La.) have voiced discontent with Facebook and signaled that the company’s response to the Cambridge Analytica scandal has been inadequate.

“We have a problem. Our promised digital utopia has minefields in it. Mr. Zuckerberg has not exhausted himself being forthcoming,” Kennedy said Sunday on CBS’s “Face The Nation.”

Other senators to watch for in the hearing include Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinProgressives fume as Dems meet with Brett Kavanaugh GOP lawmaker calls on FBI to provide more info on former Feinstein staffer It’s possible to protect national security without jeopardizing the economy MORE (D-Calif.) and Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamOn The Money: Turkey slaps more tariffs on US goods | Businesses fear blowback from Russia sanctions bill | Senate turns to toughest 'minibus' yet Businesses fear blowback from Russia sanctions bill White House staff offered discounts at Trump's NJ golf club: report MORE (R-S.C.); both threw down the gauntlet when officials from Facebook, Twitter and Google testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in November.

“You created these platforms, and now they’re being misused. And you have to be the ones who do something about it, or we will. We are not going to go away, gentlemen,” Feinstein said in November.


How does he explain Facebook’s response to Cambridge Analytica?

Facebook’s handling of the Cambridge Analytica controversy is certain to be a major focus of lawmakers’ questions.

The company says it first discovered in 2015 that Cambridge Analytica had improperly obtained user data. In response, it asked the firm to certify that the data would be destroyed.

Cambridge Analytica agreed to those terms but then violated that agreement, as The New York Times and The Observer reported last month. Instead, the firm used the data as part of its work on campaigns.

Facebook says it was deceived by the firm and has suspended Cambridge Analytica from its platform. But that timeline of events isn’t sitting well with lawmakers, who question why it took the company so long to take action.

“Why did you not suspend the company from your platform in 2015?” Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenGroup files lawsuit to force Georgia to adopt paper ballots Treasury releases proposed rules on major part of Trump tax law Rubio slams Google over plans to unveil censored Chinese search engine MORE (D-Ore.) asked in a letter he sent to Facebook. Other lawmakers, like Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneEx-Trump adviser: Shutdown 'not worst idea in the world' 74 protesters charged at Capitol in protest of Kavanaugh Senate clears 4B ‘minibus’ spending measure MORE (R-S.D.), have asked similar questions. 

Zuckerberg has said that Facebook wanted to make sure it verified what had happened before acting.

Lawmakers will also want to know if there are other entities that may have obtained user data in violation of Facebook’s policies, in the way that Cambridge Analytica did.

Zuckerberg and Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg have both said that they’re not aware of any other instances of improperly harvested data. But Zuckerberg has said that Facebook is still working to uncover any other violations that may have occurred.


What does Zuckerberg say about Russia’s election interference?

Members of Congress are certain to come armed with questions about how Russia used Facebook during the 2016 presidential race.

In his written testimony to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Zuckerberg confirmed that in the summer of 2016 the company shut down a group of accounts with suspected ties to the Kremlin. The accounts, believed to be a part of the Russian espionage group called APT 28, “created fake personas that were used to seed stolen information to journalists,” Zuckerberg said.

“What we found was that bad actors had used coordinated networks of fake accounts to interfere in the election: promoting or attacking specific candidates and causes, creating distrust in political institutions, or simply spreading confusion,” his statement reads.

Last year, Facebook sent one of its top lawyers to testify in a series of congressional hearings about revelations that the company had sold $100,000 in ads to the Internet Research Agency, a Russian “troll farm” that’s alleged to have conducted an influence campaign ultimately aimed at helping President TrumpDonald John TrumpGillibrand urges opposition to Kavanaugh: Fight for abortion rights 'is now or never' Trump claims tariffs on foreign nations will rescue US steel industry: report Bannon announces pro-Trump movie, operation team ahead of midterms: report MORE win the election.

Since then, Zuckerberg has vowed to improve the platform’s safeguards against disinformation and election meddling.

“We were too slow to spot and respond to Russian interference, and we’re working hard to get better,” he plans to say on Wednesday.


Does the hearing fuel calls for regulation?

The biggest worry for Facebook and other tech companies is that the scrutiny from Washington will ultimately result in new laws and regulations.

Over the past year, policymakers have grown more critical of the tech industry, though they have yet to translate their frustration into action.

Some privacy advocates want the U.S. to develop a regulatory framework like the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the far-reaching European Union law that will go into effect next month and gives internet users greater control over their own data.

Under that law, websites in Europe will have to be more transparent about what they do with that data and offer users simple controls to restrict how it’s used.

Though the GDPR will only apply to the EU, Zuckerberg has promised to extend the privacy controls required by the law to all Facebook users around the world.

Zuckerberg has taken one step to defuse the anger in Congress by endorsing the Honest Ads Act, a bill that would require social media companies to abide by the same disclosure rules for campaign ads as radio and television.