It was “extraordinary to have a single CEO testify before half the US Senate,” Republican John Thune noted when he opened the first congressional hearing on Facebook on Tuesday. The company’s base of two billion users, too, is extraordinary, even unique. And extraordinary circumstances had made Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony necessary: His company’s inadvertent intrusion on the 2016 US election demonstrated its power to disseminate political propaganda through simple inaction, and its apparent carelessness with its own data-scraping tools left 87 million of those users vulnerable to researcher Aleksandr Kogan, who sold his findings to the data firm Cambridge Analytica, and possibly others.
But the hearings didn’t just demonstrate the remarkable nature of Facebook itself. They also showed American lawmakers in extremis, lost for a way to call Zuckerberg to account without dismantling the financial backbone of the ad-supported internet at best and, at worst, shamelessly on the prowl for private investment in public works. The Senate hearing was concerned with high-level policy and, as many noted, filled with unimpressive questions from legislators and successful dodges from Zuckerberg. In the House, representatives aired their own constituents’ concerns directly, making for a more profitable exchange.
Some under-covered moments from the hearings:
- Three different Republican legislators used the opportunity of the hearings to beg Mark Zuckerberg to consider their districts for his company’s rural broadband initiative. Rural broadband is complex: Telecom companies tend to underinvest in areas with low population density because of the increased cost of laying fiber-optic cable across the long distances between single homes, but it’s increasingly necessary for modern jobs as well as for media consumption. “The next time you visit, please bring fiber,” West Virginia Senator Shelley Capito entreated Zuckerberg on Tuesday. Ohio Representative Bill Johnson and Iowa’s Dave Loebsack added their voice to the chorus at the House hearing the following morning.
- North Dakota Representative Kevin Cramer said he believed Facebook’s algorithmic choices showed liberal bias against conservative voices and suggested that it hire people for content review from the American heartland . He wasn’t subtle about where exactly in the heartland he meant: “If the talent pool is a problem, then let’s look for a different talent pool, and maybe we could have a nice big center someplace.” (Facebook has announced the construction of a data center in Ohio.)
- While some were silly or uninformed—Sen. Mike Peters and Rep Larry Bucshon each asked Zuckerberg if the company secretly turned on cell phone microphones—others were sobering. “You’re truncating the basic rights of the American promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness by the wholesale invasion and manipulation of their right to privacy,” said Bobby Rush, formerly president of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther party and now a representative from that state, who recalled his own role as a victim of COINTELPRO and compared Facebook to the notorious mid-century program of surveillance and strategic discord. “Mr. Zuckerberg, what is the difference between Facebook’s methodology and the methodology of the American political pariah, J. Edgar Hoover?”
- Facebook’s commitment to “all ideas” seems to disappear when its business interests shift to areas controlled by governments that prefer to censor some ideas—a point on which Zuckerberg skated. Zuckerberg’s ambitions to get Facebook into China were on full display if you knew where to look: Alaska Senator Dan Sullivan told Zuckerberg he would have been able to found Facebook “only in America, would you agree with that?” When Zuckerberg demurred, Sullivan pressed him: “You couldn’t — you couldn’t do this in China, right? Or, what you did in 10 years.”“Well, senator, there are some very strong Chinese Internet companies,” Zuckerberg replied. An AP photographer snapped a picture of Zuckerberg’s notes: In them, the CEO’s case against breaking up Facebook—which he was never called on to make—was a pure appeal to patriotism and the American-ness of Facebook against insurgent Chinese tech companies. But the company was reportedly looking for office space in Shanghai less than a year ago.
- No one pushed back on Zuckerberg’s proposal to continue to blacklist misleading or illegal content through artificial intelligence. At least three congresspeople lambasted him for the continued proliferation of “digital pharmacies” advertising opioid sales through the platform. But in general, representatives did worry that Zuckerberg would adopt too stringent a definition of what is misleading or dangerous, with multiple Republican congressmen noting that pro-Trump YouTube personalities Diamond and Silk had traffic to their Facebook page blocked for being “dangerous to the community.”It’s not clear at all that the ban referred to the garden-variety right-wing news content of their posts, as the congresspeople seemed to imply. There are other reasons to block traffic to Facebook pages, among them the problem of harmful software being run on links posted to those pages. This may have been the case with Diamond and Silk; in Firefox, the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Privacy Badger extension identifies a browser hijack called “lijit” as one of the 19 potentially dangerous trackers it blocks on the pair’s website, to which they frequently link. Lijit also appears on many malware removal sites.
- New York Congressman Paul Tonko made a familiar point for cybersecurity professionals. After reading a list of major data breaches, each numbering in the tens of millions of accounts, he said: “The security of all that private data is gone, likely sold many times over to the highest bidder on the dark web. We live in an information age. Data breaches and privacy hacks are not a question of if. They are a question of when.” The largest of those breaches, which affected all 3 billion Yahoo accounts, set off a chain of events that ended in the company’s break-up and sale—and far fewer of those accounts were regularly used than Facebook’s 2 billion monthly active accounts. The data Facebook maintains on billions of people is incredibly granular and sophisticated; that’s why it is so valuable.Its sheer size is such that Zuckerberg said that Facebook is “more like a government than a traditional company,” and perhaps that’s why many legislators couldn’t lay a glove on him: They were facing down a fellow politician.