Zuckerberg Holds His Own Against Senators' Barrage of Questions

NEWS ANALYSIS: Facebook CEO endured more than five hours of grilling by two Senate committees and generally kept his cool, though he dodged some questions and offered incomplete answers for others. Questioning continues today in Washington, D.C.

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When Facebook CEO and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg faced 44 senators and just about every media outlet in Washington, D.C. on April 10, it was an intriguing, and probably historic, five-hour moment. Not only for Silicon Valley and the tech community, but for just about anybody who’s ever used a computer or a smartphone.

After all, there is no other media network that engages more people than Facebook—2.2 billion to be, well, sort of precise. The stakes were high as to whether Zuckerberg could be convincing enough to reassure people that Facebook is sincere when it says it wants to protect the privacy of its users’ information.

This week, the young executive is the face of the entire technology business live and in color on millions of television screens around the world, and for hours at a time. What he says and how he says it will impact the way the common user of electronic devices and cloud services thinks about how to trust the industry.

For the record: Facebook is being called on the carpet April 10 and 11 because personal information collected from as many as 87 million of its American users (that’s not an actual number of victims, just an estimated possible number) was improperly accessed to create and target ads, post videos and falsify news stories that became influential in the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States in 2016.

Facebook is accused of not doing enough to stop the malevolent use of personal data that had been hijacked and re-sold to the Trump campaign and other Republicans (including former candidate Ted Cruz) by a research firm based in the U.K.

CEO Takes Responsibility From the Start

To his credit, Zuckerberg admitted from the beginning that he is ultimately responsible for such a lapse in data security—even though the consulting firm, the now-defunct Cambridge Analytica, lied about whether it had deleted all the personal information after Facebook told it to cease and desist two years ago.

Cambridge Analytica was founded in 2013 by Republican strategist and former Breitbart Media principal Steve Bannon, who served stints as Trump’s campaign manager and chief of staff before being fired last year. It is partially owned by the family of Robert Mercer, a billionaire American hedge-fund manager who supports numerous politically conservative causes. The firm maintains offices in London, New York City, and Washington, D.C.

Cambridge Analytica used the data it gathered from a voluntary online quiz it published on Facebook to inform Republican leadership about how to influence voter sentiment against Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and for Trump. As of earlier this year, the Cambridge Analytica site has been taken down and principals inside the company recently were reported to be expunging as much information about the company as possible that exists on the internet.

While Cambridge Analytica has claimed that none of its data was used in the 2016 election, ousted CEO Alexander Nix was caught on camera saying that the firm ran all the digital operations for Trump's campaign. Most of the information the firm gathered came from Facebook’s data stores.

Not a ‘Broad Enough View’ of Responsibility

“We didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibility, and that was a big mistake. And it was my mistake, and I’m sorry,” Zuckerberg told the joint meeting of the Senate Judicial and Commerce committees. “I started Facebook, I run it, and I am responsible for what happens here.”

The 33-year-old CEO looked occasionally uncomfortable, but who wouldn’t under five-plus hours of intense grilling by professional politicians—many of whom have been lawyers and/or prosecutors in years past? Generally, Zuckerberg held up well and even managed a smile or laugh now and then.

By one important empirical measure, Zuckerberg held his own against the onslaught of questions, because during the questioning Facebook’s stock gained 5 percent in value (and was at its highest level in two weeks) by market’s close. So, if you want to quantify his performance, there’s a starter measure—at least from his company’s investors.

By other, more “optics”-type measurements, Zuckerberg stayed in control and answered myriad questions politely and in an even-tempered manner, even when the questions were politically pointed (“Facebook has shown a pervasive pattern of political bias … do you agree with that assessment?” Cruz sneered) or bone-headed ones. An example of the latter that was asked a few times: “When Facebook sells its user information, how does that work?”

Zuckerberg Dodged Some Questions

“Facebook never sells user information,” Zuckerberg corrected the questioner, and he did that more than once. “We help our advertisers get their messages in front of our users.” Several senators still couldn’t seem to understand that concept.

In fact, it was obvious that a fair number of the senators in the room weren’t Facebook users and hadn’t much knowledge about how the network is used and operated.

Zuckerberg dodged a few questions, mostly about how Facebook might be regulated by the federal government in the future. He said he wasn’t against regulation but was clear to say he wanted to make sure “the right regulations” were to be enacted.

One question he skirted was about whether European Union consumer privacy laws—namely the upcoming General Data Protection Regulation, which goes into effect May 25—should be enacted in the U.S.

When asked by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.; pictured at left) if he believed users should be notified of a data breach within 72 hours of the event—which is a key tenet of the GDPR—Zuckerberg said, “Senator, that makes sense to me.” But he didn’t commit to supporting such a regulation.

Facebook is All In for the Honest Ads Act

However, when asked whether he would support the Honest Ads Act, legislation currently making its way through Congress that would impact digital platform like Facebook’s, Zuckerberg was resolutely in favor. The Honest Ads Act would prohibit foreign interests from posting campaign ads and allow the public to see who is behind every election ad.

“We’re doing that now,” Zuckerberg said. “We’ve enabled easier ways for users to block access to their information and restricting how much data any outside entity can access.”

It was also obvious that there were a high number of skeptics among the 44 senators in the room April 10. There will be more skeptics April 11, when Zuckerberg addresses the same questions from the House of Representatives group.

In summary:  Did Zuckerberg defend Facebook adequately on Day 1 of questioning? The answer, according to this veteran media observer, was yes. But the jury, so to speak, is still out until all of this is in the Congressional Record.

Image by Chris Preimesberger from CNN broadcast

Chris Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger is Editor of Features & Analysis at eWEEK, responsible in large part for the publication's coverage areas. In his 13 years and more than 4,000 articles at eWEEK, he...