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 ZuckerbergThe Hill's Morning Report - Democrats duke it out during Nevada debate On The Money: GAO to investigate Trump aid for farmers | Bloomberg calls for bolstering Dodd-Frank | Where the 2020 Democrats stand on taxes Soros: Zuckerberg, Sandberg should be removed from control of Facebook 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 TrumpComey responds to Trump with Mariah Carey gif: 'Why are you so obsessed with me?' Congress to get election security briefing next month amid Intel drama New York man accused of making death threats against Schumer, Schiff MORE’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen.

That drama made a cameo in Zuckerberg’s testimony, when he said special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerCNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout 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 NelsonThe most expensive congressional races of the last decade Lobbying world Bottom Line 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 ThuneMcConnell tees up votes on two abortion bills Senate votes to rein in Trump's power to attack Iran As many as eight GOP senators expected to vote to curb Trump's power to attack Iran 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 GrahamBarr to attend Senate GOP lunch on Tuesday GOP lawmaker makes unannounced trip to northeastern Syria Graham: Trump has 'all the legal authority in the world' to pardon Stone 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 SchatzBooker, Merkley propose federal facial recognition moratorium Poll: Majority of Democrats say Electoral College delegates should cast ballots based on popular vote Democrats praise Romney for breaking with GOP on convicting Trump 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 HatchTrump administration backs Oracle in Supreme Court battle against Google Timeline: Trump and Romney's rocky relationship Key Republicans say Biden can break Washington gridlock 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 CruzPompeo to speak to influential conservative group in Iowa Top National Security Council aide moved to Energy Department role Ted Cruz takes aim at Alabama vasectomy bill: 'Yikes' 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