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 ZuckerbergFight looms over national privacy law Facebook teaming with nonprofits to fight fake election news China may be copying Facebook to build an intelligence weapon 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 TrumpSunday shows preview: Trump sells U.N. reorganizing and Kavanaugh allegations dominate Ex-Trump staffer out at CNN amid “false and defamatory accusations” Democrats opposed to Pelosi lack challenger to topple her 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 NelsonNelson campaign to donate K from Al Franken group to charity Political shenanigans mask true problems in Puerto Rico The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by United Against Nuclear Iran — The Hill interviews President Trump 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 ThuneGoogle says it continues to allow apps to access Gmail user data Fight looms over national privacy law Want to improve health care? Get Americans off of their couches 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 GrahamSunday shows preview: Trump sells U.N. reorganizing and Kavanaugh allegations dominate Kim, Moon toss ball to Trump in ‘last, best chance’ for Korean peace GOP senator: Kavanaugh accuser 'moving the goalposts' 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 Energy: Warren bill would force companies to disclose climate impacts | Green group backs Gillum in Florida gov race | Feds to open refuge near former nuke site Warren wants companies to disclose more about climate change impacts Congress just failed our nation’s veterans when it comes to medical marijuana 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 HatchKavanaugh accuser agrees to testify next week Judiciary Dems say GOP treating Kavanaugh accuser worse than Anita Hill Dem vows to probe 'why the FBI stood down' on Kavanaugh 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 CruzViral video shows O’Rourke air-drumming to the Who’s ‘Baba O’Riley’ after Cruz debate Five takeaways from Cruz, O'Rourke's fiery first debate NY Times, McCabe give Trump perfect cover to fire Rosenstein, Sessions 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