Zuckerberg holds his own in round one of testimony

Zuckerberg holds his own in round one of testimony
© Greg Nash

Facebook CEO Mark ZuckerbergMark Elliot ZuckerbergOvernight Tech: Apple's Tim Cook meets Trump at White House | Zuckerberg sticking with Facebook's ad model | Kanye West wants sitdown with Apple, Google execs | Zuckerberg says Facebook is sticking by ads model Facebook shakes up Washington lobbying team amid scandal MORE offered a vehement defense of his company on Tuesday during a lengthy Senate hearing, the first time the chief of the nation’s largest social media company has ever appeared before a congressional panel.

The 33-year-old Zuckerberg emerged largely unscathed despite sometimes-aggressive questioning from lawmakers that went well beyond the Cambridge Analytica controversy that sparked the appearance to issues including data privacy and perceived bias on the social media platform against conservatives.

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Sitting on a four-inch cushion and gulping regularly from a glass of water, Zuckerberg — wearing a blue tie and crisp suit instead of his signature grey T-shirt — was apologetic for his company’s mistakes during nearly five hours of testimony.

“It’s clear now that we didn’t do enough to prevent these tools from being used for harm as well,” Zuckerberg said of Cambridge Analytica’s harvesting of data from an estimated 87 million Facebook users. Cambridge Analytica was co-founded by former White House strategist Stephen Bannon, and the data may have been used during the 2016 presidential campaign.

“We didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibility, and that was a big mistake,” Zuckerberg said before the joint hearing of the Senate Commerce and Judiciary committees.

But Zuckerberg sought to make the case that Facebook remained a force for more good than bad in creating connections between different people and ideas.

“My top priority has always been our social mission of connecting people, building community and bringing the world closer together,” Zuckerberg said. “I believe deeply in what we’re doing. And when we address these challenges, I know we’ll look back and view helping people connect and giving more people a voice as a positive force in the world.”

The initial reviews were good for Zuckerberg’s performance, which had been hyped for days but in some ways was overshadowed Tuesday by the drama over the FBI’s raid a day earlier of President TrumpDonald John TrumpFormer Watergate prosecutor: Trump taking the fifth would be political suicide Comey: I’m ‘embarrassed and ashamed’ by Republican party Comey, Anderson Cooper clash over whether memo release violated FBI rules MORE’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen.

That drama made a cameo in Zuckerberg’s testimony, when he said special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE has interviewed Facebook employees as part of his investigation into Russia’s election interference.

“I want to be careful here because our work with the special counsel is confidential,” Zuckerberg said Tuesday. “I know that we are working with them.”

Wall Street reacted favorably, as Facebook’s stock finished up 4.5 percent for the day, rallying to its highest point during his testimony.

Zuckerberg told lawmakers that he would be open to new regulations on Facebook, a position he had telegraphed in the past week. He said this could include a 72-hour data breach disclosure policy to let consumers know when their data has been compromised.

Lawmakers said regulation was coming — particularly if Facebook did not get its “act in order,” in the words of Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonTucker Carlson criticizes GOP for campaigning against Clinton: She ‘doesn’t run anything’ Senators debate new business deduction, debt in tax law hearing Winners and losers from Jim Bridenstine’s confirmation as NASA administrator MORE (Fla.), the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee.

“In the past, many of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle have been willing to defer to tech companies’ efforts to regulate themselves. But this may be changing,” said Senate Commerce Chairman John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneRepublicans want Trump’s VA nominee to withdraw Senators debate new business deduction, debt in tax law hearing House, Senate GOP compete for cash MORE (R-S.D.).

Zuckerberg appeared to have been well-coached for his appearance, and much of the discussion stuck to tech issues that may have given the youthful CEO an advantage over some of his inquisitors.

Lawmakers at times used Zuckerberg as a resource to learn about his platform and the new technologies undergirding it. The Facebook CEO seized on this opportunity, repeating details about how his company’s privacy and data options worked and reiterating steps to improve data collection transparency that he had revealed in prior announcements.

One of Zuckerberg’s most frequent tactics was to tell various senators that he would have “his team” follow up with them.

Some legislators did try to pin down Zuckerberg on difficult subjects that his company has long grappled with.

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGOP anxiety grows over Trump’s Iran decision Overnight Cybersecurity: Senators eye path forward on election security bill | Facebook isn't winning over privacy advocates | New hacks target health care Paul backs Pompeo, clearing path for confirmation MORE (R-S.C.) pressed Zuckerberg on whether Facebook is a monopoly, a charge that has been frequently reiterated as the company’s size and value have ballooned.

“It certainly doesn’t feel that way to me,” Zuckerberg said, a comment that drew laughs from the packed committee room.

Zuckerberg also deflected key questions about data privacy on Facebook. He said he was not yet sure if data analysis firm Palantir had scraped Facebook user data and if other third-party apps had engaged in behavior similar to Cambridge Analytica’s.

The Facebook CEO explained that his company is still “investigating many apps, tens of thousands of apps, and if we find any suspicious activity, we’re going to conduct a full audit of those apps to understand how they’re using their data and if they’re doing anything improper. If we find that they’re doing anything improper, we’ll ban them from Facebook and we will tell everyone affected.” 

Lawmakers also pushed Zuckerberg on how difficult it is for users to discern what type of data collection agreements they’re entering into with Facebook.

“People have no earthly idea what they’re signing up for,” said Sen. Brian SchatzBrian Emanuel SchatzOvernight Tech: AT&T chief takes the stand to defend merger | Facebook keeps most users out of EU data law's reach | HUD reopens probe into Facebook housing ads | Venture capital firms go to bat for cryptocurrencies Facebook investigated over alleged housing discrimination Senate confirms Trump’s pick to lead NASA MORE (D-Hawaii).

Though many lawmakers took a critical and questioning tone of Facebook, some defended the company’s practices.

“Nothing in life is free. Everything involves trade-offs. If you want something without having to pay money for it, you’re going to have to pay for it some other way,” said Sen. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchSenators to Trump: Let Mueller finish Russia probe Conservative justices signal willingness to uphold travel ban Medical marijuana legislation gets support of key House Republican MORE (R-Utah).

“All these great websites that don’t charge for access — they extract value in some other way. And there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as they’re upfront about what they’re doing,” he said.

Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzCruz urges UK to allow British toddler's parents to transfer him for treatment Maxine Waters to Trump: ‘Please resign’ Cruz challenger says ‘no thanks’ to funding from Steyer MORE (R-Texas), in one of the more contentious points of the hearing, grilled Zuckerberg over whether the company censored conservative speech.

“There are a great many Americans who I would say are deeply concerned that Facebook and other tech companies are engaged in a pervasive pattern of bias and political censorship,” Cruz said, citing a 2016 Gizmodo report as well as the recent revelation that it barred Trump supporters Diamond and Silk from the platform after deeming their content “unsafe to the community.”

Zuckerberg defended Facebook as a “platform for all ideas,” but acknowledged that Silicon Valley’s liberal tilt could cause such concerns to arise. He said he has worked to “root out” any political bias in the company’s work.

“This is actually a concern that I have, and that I try to root out at the company — is making sure that we don’t have any bias in the work that we do,” he added. “I think it is a fair concern that people would at least wonder about.”

Zuckerberg will testify Wednesday before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

– Morgan Chalfant and Olivia Beavers contributed