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Facebook – The social media giant has made its chief Mark Zuckerberg accept personal responsibility for the leak of data on tens of millions of its users, while warning of an “arms race” against Russian disinformation during a high-stakes hearing with US lawmakers.
In his first formal congressional appearance, the Facebook founder and CEO answered questions for nearly five hours as he sought to suppress the storm over privacy and security lapses at the social media giant that have infuriated lawmakers and the network’s two billion users.
Under escalating pressure over the hijacking of its user data by a British political consultant, Zuckerberg repeated his apology for the historic breach, before being grilled over how Facebook collects and protects people’s personal information.
- 2:45 p.m ET:Senator John Thune opens with a brief overview of the Cambridge Analytica issue, as well as Facebook’s recent revelation that nearly all users have had their public data scraped.
- 3:00 p.m ET: Zuckerberg gets his first chance to speak, gives his opening statement.
- 3:05 p.m ET: Zuckerberg says Facebook is conducting a “full investigation” into “tens of thousands of apps” and how they’re using data. Doesn’t say how long this investigation might take.
- 3:10 p.m ET: Zuckerberg, when asked about Sheryl Sandberg’s earlier comment that Facebook users would have to pay for an ad-free service says “we think offering an ad-supported service is the most aligned with our mission.”
- 3:25 p.m ET: Senator Feinstein asks about election interference, Zuckerberg says Facebook’s slowness in detecting foreign interference is one of his “greatest regrets”, which he once called a “crazy idea”
- 3:30 p.m ET: Zuckerberg says Facebook risks falling behind Chinese competitors if they don’t innovate with “sensitive” features like facial recognition.
- 3:40 p.m ET: Senator Wicker asks a question about whether Facebook can track users after they log out of the site, and Zuckerberg says he will have to get back to him on that. Seems pretty incredible that he wouldn’t understand a fundamental question about Facebook’s ad tracking.
- 3:50 p.m ET: Senator Lindsey Graham asks Zuckerberg about who Facebook’s biggest competitor is, Zuckerberg stumbles a bit, tries to name a list of companies. Graham interrupts, asks if he thinks Facebook is a monopoly.
“You don’t think you have a monopoly?” Mr. Graham asked.
Mr. Zuckerberg replied: “It doesn’t feel that way to me.”
- 3:56 p.m ET: Zuckerberg sounds supportive of a potential measure that would require Facebook (and, presumably, other companies) to notify users within 72 hours of a breach.
Also, important to note, Zuckerberg is not quibbling with senators over their use of the word “breach,” which execs got flack for early on in the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
- 4:12 p.m ET: Senator John Cornyn asks Zuckerberg if users have a way of taking back data from Facebook after they’ve shared it. Zuckerberg replies that if you delete your account, Facebook removes it form its servers. Cornyn follows up, and asks if that applies to third-parties, Zuckerberg says it’s a “common misconception” that Facebook sells data to advertisers.
- 4:25 p.m ET: Ted Cruz is really hammering Zuckerberg about whether Facebook has censored political speech, asks why Palmer Luckey was fired from the company, he declines to give a specific reason but says it was not over his political views. (Remember that Luckey was booted from Oculus soon after reports he’d financially supported a controversial, pro-Trump group called Nimble America. Luckey denied those allegations at the time.)
- 5:00 p.m ET: Senator Deb Fischer with a rather awkward line of questioning about how and what data Facebook stores. It gives Zuckerberg ample opportunity to wiggle out of questions (Fischer isn’t alone on this, by the way).
- 5:06 p.m ET: Senator Ben Sasse asks Zuckerberg to define hate speech, he stumbles, “that’s a really hard question.” Note that Facebook clearly defines what it considers hate speech in its terms of service.
- 5:10 p.m ET: Sasse asks Zuckerberg whether he’s worried about social media addiction in young people, he completely dodges the question, which is very telling.
- 5:22 p.m ET: Senator Jeff Flake asks how many other services exploited data in the way Cambridge Analytica did, Zuckerberg mentions the ongoing audit, but says he doesn’t know at present: “I imagine we’ll find some things.”
- 5:25 p.m ET: Senator Maize Hirano asks Zuckerberg about whether Facebook cooperates with ICE, Zuckerberg says they would not “proactively” provide data, notes the company only provides specific data to law enforcement in certain defined cases, like with a court order.
- 5:30 p.m ET: China comes up once again, Senator Sullivan asks whether it’d have been possible to start Facebook in China, Zuckerberg waffles, but a moment later references the threat of Chinese tech giants again. Some context: Zuckerberg really, really wants to get into China, which will be essential to securing future growth. His efforts so far have been unsuccessful, but not for lack of trying.
- 5:35 p.m ET: Sullivan concludes his questioning by asking Zuckerberg the age-old question of “are you a tech company or a media company?” Like Sheryl Sandberg and other Facebook execs before him, Zuckerberg resists the label of media company, though he acknowledges Facebook is responsible for the content on its platform.
- 5:45 p.m ET: Senator Moran asks how the Cambridge Analytica fiasco doesn’t amount to a violation of FTC regulations governing data sharing. Zuckerberg says it doesn’t. Zuckerberg also claims that Facebook users were fully aware that Facebook’s platform allowed for this type of sharing at the time, which seems… disingenuous at best.
- 5:55 p.m ET: Senator Heller asks how quickly user data is removed from Facebook servers after they delete their account, Zuckerberg says he doesn’t know the specifics, but that Facebook attempts to do this in a “reasonable amount of time.” (Facebook says it can take up to 90 days.)
- 6:01 p.m ET: Senator Peters asks Zuckerberg about the recurring conspiracy theory that Facebook “mines” mobile audio in order to serve targeted ads to users, Zuckerberg says no, but notes Facebook does access audio for things like video sharing.
- 6:25 p.m ET: Senator Harris asks Zuckerberg if he, or anyone in Facebook leadership, was part of a specific conversation where it was decided not to alert users about Cambridge Analytica obtaining user data. Zuckerberg says he’s not aware of any such conversations. Zuckerberg says the company “made a mistake” by taking Cambridge Analytica at their word the data had been deleted.
- 6:30 p.m ET: Senator Kennedy to Zuckerberg: “Your user agreement sucks,” he says it’s written to protect “Facebook’s rear end,” not inform users.
- 6:38 p.m ET: In response to questioning from Senator Baldwin, Zuckerberg confirms that Kogan sold his trove of Facebook user data to “a couple of other firms” besides Cambridge Analytica.
- 6:45 p.m ET: The idea of an ad-free subscription version of Facebook comes up again, Zuckerberg doesn’t rule it out but repeats that free Facebook will be the best Facebook for the most people.
- 7:06 p.m ET: Senator Gardner asks if Facebook has ever been hacked, Zuckerberg says yes, via malware on employee computers in 2013. But, he adds, he doesn’t believe user data was accessed.
- 7:25 p.m ET: Senator Grassley closes with a plea for Zuckerberg use Facebook’s platform to reduce cynicism in the electorate re: partisan divisions. Grassley notes the record will remain open for five days. Zuckerberg testified for about five hours, in total.
“It was my mistake, and I’m sorry,” Zuckerberg said about the improper sharing of 87 million people’s information by Cambridge Analytica, a firm working for Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign.
“I started Facebook, I run it and I’m responsible for what happens here.”
He added that Facebook fell short in protecting the platform, noting: “That goes for fake news, foreign interference in elections and hate speech, as well as developers and data privacy.”
The 33-year-old CEO spoke of an endless struggle to guard against Russian manipulation of the Facebook platform to influence elections in the US and elsewhere.
“There are people in Russia whose job it is to try to exploit our systems and other internet systems and other systems as well,” he said.
“So, this is an arms race. They’re going to keep getting better and we need to invest in getting better at this too.”
Zuckerberg has previously acknowledged the social network failed to do enough to avert the spread of disinformation during the last US presidential race.
The Senate hearing, ahead of another appearance in the House on Wednesday, featured friendly exchanges on Facebook’s security, hate speech and other topics.
Of the hundreds of questions, he faced, none appeared to perplex him more than Senator Dick Durbin’s pointed query about where he slept the previous evening.
“Would you be comfortable sharing with us the name of the hotel you stayed in last night?” Durbin asked.
Zuckerberg paused for a full eight seconds, chortled, sneered and ultimately baulked. Saying “Um, uh, no.”
And “if you’ve messaged anybody this week, would you share with us the names of the people you’ve messaged?” the Illinois Democrat persisted.
Again, a similar unwillingness to answer, and silence prevailed.
Perhaps more than any other senator during five hours of questioning, Durbin’s everyman tactic put a finger on the crux of the issue surrounding Facebook’s handling of its users’ private data.
Zuckerberg said he was open to regulation but cautioned against complex rules that might impact emerging social media firms.
“I think the internet is becoming increasingly important in people’s lives and I think we need to have a full conversation about what is the right regulation,” he told the hearing.
“You need to be careful (a new regulatory policy) doesn’t cement in the current companies that are winning.”
Zuckerberg also revealed that Facebook is cooperating with the US special prosecutor investigating Russian interference in the 2016 vote.
“Our work with the special counsel is confidential. I want to make sure in an open session I don’t reveal something that’s confidential,” he said.
Zuckerberg said he had personally not been contacted, and that he was not specifically aware of any subpoena of Facebook data.
“I believe there may be (a subpoena), but I know we’re working with them,” he said.
Swapping his customary T-shirt for a business suit and tie, the Facebook chief appeared somber as he fielded tough questions over Cambridge Analytica’s massive data breach.
“We’ve been working to understand exactly what happened with Cambridge Analytica and taking steps to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” he said in his prepared remarks.
But the show of contrition fell short for several lawmakers.
“We’ve seen the apology tours before,” Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut told Zuckerberg. “And so, my reservation about your testimony today is that I don’t see how you can change your business model unless there are specific rules of the road.”
Dozens of protesters gathered outside Congress before the hearing wearing Zuckerberg masks and #DeleteFacebook T-shirts.
Inside the jammed hearing room, activists from the Code Pink group wore oversized glasses with the words “STOP SPYING” written on the lenses, and waved signs that read “Stop corporate lying.”
Testifying was a new step for Zuckerberg, who started Facebook as a Harvard dropout in 2004, and built it into the world’s largest social media company worth more than $450 billion.
During questioning, Zuckerberg rejected the suggestion that the social media giant, with over two billion users worldwide, has exclusive control over its market.
“The average American uses eight different apps to communicate with their friends and stay in touch with people, ranging from texting apps to e-mail,” he said.
Zuckerberg also said the company believed in an ad-supported business model but appeared to leave open the possibility of a paid version.
“There will always be a version of Facebook that is free,” Zuckerberg told the hearing.
That was the accusation that Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, was leveling at Mr. Zuckerberg when he grilled him for several minutes as to why the social network has been allegedly censoring content from conservative organizations and Trump supporters.
Mr. Zuckerberg declined to answer whether Facebook is a neutral public forum or if it is expressing its own views of free speech, avoiding a complex legal question that Mr. Cruz was posing.
However, Mr. Zuckerberg insisted that the company does not discriminate against Republican employees and that its definition for what kind of language should be kept off the platform was rooted in common sense.
“I am very committed to making sure that Facebook is a platform for all ideas,” he said after Mr. Cruz ticked off several examples of potential liberal bias on the social network.
Social media giant deceives users?
Senator Kamala Harris, Democrat of California, zeroed in on whether Facebook deceived consumers. She pressed Mr. Zuckerberg on whether the company made a decision not to inform users about the Cambridge Analytica episode when they learned in 2015 that data was sold by a researcher to the political consulting firm.
“I’m talking about notification of users. And this relates to the issue of transparency and the issue of trust: informing users of what you know in terms of how their personal information was misused,” Ms. Harris said.
Mr. Zuckerberg did not admit that the company explicitly decided to withhold that information from consumers, but he said the company made a mistake in not informing users.
The question was key to the Federal Trade Commission’s investigation of Facebook’s violation of a 2011 consent decree. If the company withheld information, which would be a deceptive act, the company could face record fines for violating its promises to the agency.
The tough questions by Ms. Harris, were closely watched because she is from the San Francisco Bay Area and is seen as a rising political star within the Democratic Party.
Early impressions of Mr. Zuckerberg’s testimony were positive. In his first appearance before Congress, he appeared confident and answered questions directly. At first, he was grim-faced, looked tired and serious. But he warmed up after an hour and offered humor about the company’s motto. He insisted on continuing questions when offered a break, eliciting smiles and laughter from staff sitting behind him.
“This is a different Mark Zuckerberg than the Street was fearing,” said Daniel Ives, chief strategy officer and head of technology research for GBH Insights in New York. “It’s a defining 48 hour that will determine the future of Facebook and so far, he has passed with flying colors and the Street is relieved.”
Investors appeared pleased: Facebook’s stock closed up nearly 4.5 percent.
Mr. Zuckerberg has a history of apologizing for the company’s mistakes and promising to do better. Wired Magazine recently noted that Mr. Zuckerberg has a 14-year history of apologizing. That seems to have caused some consternation on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers prodded Mr. Zuckerberg about why, exactly, they should believe his promises now.
“After more than a decade of promises to do better, how is today’s apology different and why should we trust Facebook to make the necessary changes to ensure user privacy and give people a clearer picture of your privacy policies?” Senator John Thune, Republican of South Dakota, asked.
Mr. Zuckerberg referred again to his company’s humble beginnings in his dorm room at Harvard.
“So, we have made a lot of mistakes in running the company. I think it’s pretty much impossible, I believe, to start a company in your dorm room and then grow it to be at the scale that we’re at now without making some mistakes.”