Zuckerberg is trying hard to get out in front of the regulatory wave

Like blind men trying to describe an elephant, everyone describing the Zuckerberg 2018 Apology Tour seems to have found whatever they wanted to find. Some members of Congress clearly believe they confronted the arrogant young billionaire and asked him the tough questions, while many observers—especially those in Silicon Valley—saw Congress demonstrating its ignorance about how Facebook works on even a basic level, proving themselves to be completely unprepared to handle the problematic aspects of a giant social network married to a one-of-a-kind surveillance engine.

And what did Mark Zuckerberg see? It’s impossible to know for sure, but it’s likely that one of the things he saw was a very clear show of power by Congress. Some of the questions may have been infantile, and some of the grandstanding amounted to a sideshow (as it so often does), but the hearings sent an obvious message: Namely, that Congress thinks Facebook is up to something—even if it’s not too sure what it is exactly—and they’re willing to consider legislation to clean things up.

ICYMI: A reporter asked for 20 years of lottery winner data. After analyzing the records, he noticed something unusual.

In other words, if Zuckerberg wants to avoid another packed-house grilling in Washington, he is going to have to get out in front of this whole regulation thing, and that means figuring out how to surf that wave rather than getting smashed into the rocks. Regardless of what’s involved, it’s likely to be a lot better than Facebook being broken up, which is the real nightmare scenario.

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Front-running regulation was clearly part of Zuckerberg’s agenda going into the hearings, because he took the surprising step of bringing up the idea himself in interviews, admitting that the giant social network might need to be regulated. That allowed him to be seen as leading the discussion of potential regulation rather than being dragged into it kicking and screaming, and he continued this approach during both the Senate and the House Committee meetings.

When it comes to what kind of regulation he is in favor of, however, Zuckerberg was considerably more wishy-washy. He told a Reuters reporter before the hearings that while the company plans to comply with Europe’s GDPR or General Data Protection Regulation, it won’t implement those same rules for users elsewhere. But in subsequent interviews and in Congress, he said Facebook does plan to extend GDPR-like protection outside Europe, but then hedged his answer on what that would involve.

All of this suggests the Facebook CEO is going to try and game the Congressional regulatory process in much the same way Russian trolls and Trump-connected data brokers gamed Facebook’s rules. All Zuckerberg has to do is give the impression that he is moving ahead on implementing the same things legislators might want—more privacy controls, or even full data portability—while avoiding the things he doesn’t want, like allowing users to block Facebook from tracking them.

Whether the young billionaire in the dark-blue suit can thread that particular needle successfully, however, remains to be seen. Stay tuned!

ICYMI: “Don’t tell a reporter you have Spanx in a bag if you don’t want them to report that you have Spanx in a bag”

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Mathew Ingram is CJR's chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in The Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as Reuters and Bloomberg.