Let’s watch Mark Zuckerberg testify in front of Congress
Get ready for the wildest couple hours C-Span has to offer.
By now, you’re all brushed up on the Facebook news. You’ve read our story about how we got to the point where Mark Zuckerberg needs to testify in front of Congress. You’ve checked your own account to see if Cambridge Analytica got your data. You contemplated deleting Facebook completely. Now, it’s time to see what Zuck has to say. You can watch the stream of the video above or check out the official page for the committee here.
You can read the pre-released statement Zuckerberg will deliver here before he says it out loud.
2:35 pm: We’re getting started with comments from Science and Transportation Committee chair, Sen. John Thune of South Dakota. He’s laying out the details of the issue as well as a top-level analysis of why people feel victimized by this scandal. “I’m not convinced that Facebook’s users have the information they need to make meaningful choices.”
2:40 pm Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein now providing commentary. She’s focusing on the Russian Internet Research Agency issue, which Thune mostly avoided.
2:45 pm Senator Chuck Grassley now making his points to Zuckerberg. Almost everyone is explicitly reminding Zuck of how many users the service has. Grassley is calling out specific revenue numbers. Now, he called out other tech companies like Google, Apple, and Amazon. Nice reminder of the possible scope of this thing. Grassley seems to steer clear of Russia as well, but he did mention the Obama campaign from 2012.
2:50 pm Senator Bill Nelson evoking the 2012 FTC mandate regarding Facebook’s responsibility regarding user data. The Facebook livestream comments are getting antsy and want to hear Zuckerberg speak. Hard to argue with that sentiment. He flat out threatened Congressional regulation if Facebook and other tech companies can’t figure out this privacy puzzle.
2:55 pm Zuck speaks! “Facebook is an idealistic and optimistic company.”
“I started Facebook. I run it and I’m responsible for what happens here.”
2:57 pm Zuckerberg is laying out the steps they’re undertaking to try and fix it. The first step is investigating the Cambridge Analytica issue.
Second step is to investigate all app developers and ban offenders.
Third, developers now can’t access as much information.
Senator Chuck Grassley asks if there are other companies who got information like Cambridge Analytica. Zuckerberg says he can send the Senator a list of banned apps after the meeting. Zuckerberg says they investigate usage patterns and reports about apps to see if they’re doing something sketchy. He also says they will be more proactive about it.
Senator Bill Nelson asks about a potential pay service on Facebook in which users pay money so they can’t be targeted with ads. Zuck admits that some people don’t like ads, but says they would rather have relevant ads than irrelevant ones. Zuck says you can turn off ad targeting, but neglects the fact that it’s very hard to find.
The idea of paying for a more secure internet isn’t new. In fact, there’s a PopSci article about it. You can read it here.
Senator John Thune quotes Wired to start off his comments. “Why should we trust Facebook to ensure user privacy and give people a clearer picture of your privacy policies?” Mark starts his reply with the signature mention of how he started the company in his dorm room. The overall response takes a “we’ll try harder” tone.
Thune goes on to ask about enforcement policies and the use of AI when combing through posts. Zuckerberg cryptically mentions AI tools that flag content so the 20,000 human employees can review it. He specifically notes that “hate speech” is particularly hard to pick up because it’s “nuanced.” He says finding “terrorist propaganda” is easier and AI catches 98 percent of it before people see it.
Senator Dianne Feinstein jumps directly into asking how they try to prevent foreign actors from trying to influence elections. Zuckerberg says the company has deployed new AI tools that are better at identifying fake accounts. He says they have already seen results, removing “tens of thousands” or fake accounts before other elections like the latest in France. He calls this an “arms race” with those trying to influence elections.
Zuckerberg says Facebook has taken down 470 accounts tied to the IRA, and 270 more in Russia they took down last week.
Senator Orrin Hatch drops a humble brag about charing a Microsoft hearing back in the day. His first actual question: “Will Facebook always be free?”
Zuck says there will always be a free version of Facebook. He doesn’t rule out a paid version, though. Zuckerberg says that some tech like facial recognition should require special authorization. Hatch’s question is too open ended and it gave Zuck too much leeway to talk in vague terms. We don’t get much out of it.
Senator Maria Cantwell immediately dives into data analysis company, Palantir, asking if Facebook specifically helped Cambridge Analytica and the campaigns. Zuck’s answers are extremely short. Her next question is about Total Information Awareness, a 2003 effort to harvest information to use for political influence.
Finally, someone mentions the European Union’s plan for expanded security, GDPR. It takes effect in May, and it’s still unclear whether or not the USA will get the same benefits that the EU will in terms of privacy.
Senator Wicker starts his statement by stating he doesn’t want to over-regulate the companies. He asks if there should be a single way of governing companies regarding privacy. Zuckerberg evokes net neutrality, explaining the difference between companies like Facebook and internet service providers.
Wicker asks whether or not Facebook tracks phone calls and texts. Zuckerberg explains the mobile ties in the Messenger app, and says they don’t collect call and text history unless you specifically opt-in.
Finally, Wicker asks if Facebook can track users’ browsing activity, even if they have “logged off” of the Facebook platform. Zuckerberg talks about cookies that track between sessions, which includes security and “ad experience.”
Senator Patrick Leahy asks about whether Facebook has been subpoenaed about information. The answer is unclear. Now they’re trotting out a board with groups that look like groups created by Russian operatives. Zuckerberg says Facebook now requires verified identities for people starting pages and groups.
Senator Lindsey Graham reads Andrew Boswell’s statement about how the platform needs to exist regardless of the negative applications. Zuckerberg says he doesn’t approve of the commnts, but tries to contextualize them.
Graham asks about Facebook’s competition. He uses a car analogy to try and get Zuckerberg to name his competition. He specifically asks if Facebook is a monopoly. “It certainly doesn’t feel like that to me,” Zuck replies. Laughter is heard in the room.
Graham asks why the government should let Facebook self-regulate. Zuckerberg wonders what the right regulation would be. Zuck says he’d work with Congress by proposing regulations.
Now Graham is holding up a print out of the entire terms of service in print form. It’s a fat wad of paper. This has been by far the most lively part of this hearing.
Senator Amy Klobuchar from Minnesota is up front about stating the need for rules. Klobuchar is already working on the Honest Ads act, which requires disclosure from people who take out ads and Facebook has already publicly supported. Facebook will now give you the opportunity to see all the ads an advertiser is running with a click.
Klobuchar asks whether Facebook knows where the Cambridge Analytica victims reside to compare it against election results. She then asks if Cambridge Analytica’s data could be stored in Russia. Zuckerberg says he doesn’t have specific information about that, but once again says they need to do a full audit. The UK government, however, gets the first whack at the audit.
Senator Roy Blunt takes the very long way around to asking his first question. Blunt asks if Facebook tracks devices that an individual has when they’re not specifically connected to Facebook. Zuck says there may be some data that’s necessary to provide services. Blunt pushes on the issue of cross-device tracking and tracking users who don’t know they’re being tracked. There’s a disconnect here and the two seem to be talking about two different things.
Senator Dick Durbin asks Zuck if he would share the name of the hotel he stayed in last night. Laughs all around. Durbin is the first to mention the Facebook Messenger Kids app. I imagine Zuck is excited about this question because he seems confident that the Messenger Kids app isn’t sucking up much data.
Senator John Cornyn evokes Facebook’s original motto, “move fast and break things.” Zuckerberg replies with the current moto, “move fast with stable infrastructure.” We’re starting to get really repetitive with these points. We’re talking in vague terms now. Then, Zuckerberg says, “I agree that we’re responsible for the content.” Expect to read that quote in a lot of stories about this.
Zuckerberg is illustratiing the fine point about how Facebook “doesn’t sell user data to advertisers.” Instead, Facebook finds out who advertisers want to target and then shows it to them itself.
Senator Richard Blumenthal starts asking questions after Zuckerberg doesn’t want a break. Blumenthal brings out a board with the terms of service from the This Is Your Digital Life app at the center of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. This is a much more effective board than the one before with the possibly Russian groups on it. Blumenthal suggests it’s a violation of the FTC consent decree, but Zuckerberg disagrees and retreats back to the “broader responsibility” trope we’ve heard so much in the past few weeks.
Blumenthal continues the hard press, asking Zuckerberg if he agrees with the need for regulations.
Senator Ted Cruz asks Zuckerberg if Facebook is a neutral public forum or if it’s engaged in political speech under the first amendment. Zuck isn’t sure. Worth noting that Ted Cruz’s campaign worked with Cambridge Analytica.
Cruz accuses Facebook of bias and political censorship, citing a Gizmodo report. Cruz goes on to list specific pages and asks whether or not they have endured censorship. Zuckerberg is doing his best to stay absolutely neutral.
4:35 pm Zuckerberg offers a correction for an earlier question from Senator Leahy. He says Cambridge Analytica started as an advertiser in 2015 and Facebook could have banned them. They “made a mistake” by not doing so.
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse asks for the specific meaning of the “bans” Facebook has been handing out. He asks if Aleksandr Kogan—the creator of the This Is Your Digital Life app—has a personal Facebook account. Zuckerberg isn’t sure, but he doesn’t think so. He definitely can’t make any more apps.
Whitehouse pushes and asks what would happen if members of Cambridge Analytica tried to start a new app in different corporations. Zuckerberg says personal accounts aren’t blocked, but they can’t do business on the platform.
Whitehouse finishes by asking about the verification process for users to buy political ads. He wonders about how they can navigate past things like shell corporations. Zuckerberg says Facebook will require a government-issued identity, but a shell corporation could fool the system.
Senator Mike Lee picks up where Ted Cruz left off, asking about fairness in terms of speech. Lee is much more subtle about it, though. He has asked the same cryptic question using a “thumb on the scale” metaphor several times and it’s not going anywhere. He moves on to ask if there’s a “free market incentive” to protect user data. Lee is asking for examples of data collection that users might find surprising. Zuckerberg dropped into a standard routine about data. Next!
Senator Brian Schatz starts by outlining the breadth of the terms of service, pointing out its length. He specifically asks Zuckerberg what people are signing up for when they agree to the ToS. Zuckerberg offers the sales pitch for fun Facebook features, but Schatz comes back asking about things like private messages. Schatz asks about Whatsapp, which is one of Facebook’s most secure services. He should have avoided Whatsapp and asked about Messenger.
Senator Deb Fischer asks about how many categories on which Facebook stores. The question doesn’t land and the answer is unclear. She asks how much data Facebook stores, and once again, the answer is nebulous.
Senator Chris Coons is the first to mention the discriminatory housing advertisements that ran on the Facebook platform. He’s using it as an analogy for a larger issue in which Facebook says one thing, apologizes, but then continues with the bad behavior. Coons tells a story about a fake Facebook account using his identity with “lots of Russian friends.” His question falls a little flat, asking Zuckerberg about how Facebook can get ahead of trolls and fake accounts. Zuckerberg gives him the spiel about AI tools and 20,000 new security employees.
Senator Ben Sasse goes back to defining the line between neutral tech companies and media companies with first amendment rights. He asks Zuckerberg to define hate speech and gives him a hypothetical about abortion.
Sasse’s second question is about Facebook addiction in America’s teens. Zuckerberg points out the benefits of social interaction as compared to passive internet usage. He then asks if they hire consultants to get more “dopamine feedback loops.”
Senatror Edward Markey asks if Facebook should have to get permission before selling a user’s personal information. Zuckerberg goes back to the fact that Facebook doesn’t sell user information. Markey asks about a law he wants to put on the books requiring companies to let users opt-in for information collection. This would make the US standard the same as the impending EU standard.
Markey goes on to talk about how he authored the COPPA regulations for governing how children interact with the internet. Markey is proposing children under 16 should have a Privacy Bill of Rights that “protects children.”
Senator Jeff Flake starts out trying to illustrate the duality of Facebook in developing countries, some of which are benefitting, and others like Myanmar, in which Facebook is a tool of an oppressive government. Zuckerberg suggests Facebook needs to implement media literacy tools to help users understand the things that go through their feeds. He doesn’t give specifics, but does say the tools should be specific to their countries.
He’s still talking about AI tools that can scale and take care of this. There’s definitely an element of Facebook foisting some of the responsibility for these things onto robots.
Senator Mazie Hirono brings up the idea that organizations like ICE could use social media information to target undocumented immigrants. She outright asks if Facebook plans to cooperate with ICE and the Trump administration. Zuckerberg says the only two cases they cooperate with law enforcement is if they believe someone is going to cause harm or if they get a subpoena. In the latter case, they will push back “aggressively” if they don’t feel there’s a strong legal case for it.
Hirono goes on to ask about Facebook’s practice of targeting or neglecting protected groups with advertisements. Zuckerberg says Facebook has removed the ability to target racial groups with ads. Though, he says the community flagging content is still the primary method of catching discriminatory ads. Again he goes back to AI tools.
Senator Dan Sullivan: “Are you too powerful?”
Zuckerberg refers to the the fact that the majority of users on Facebook are outside the USA. Zuckerberg calls it a competitive advantage for the US that foreign users are participating in an American tech platform.
Sullivan suggests that companies like Facebook in the past have been subjected to break up or regulations. Zuckerberg says he’s not afraid of regulations, but the content of the regulations matter. Lots of “Yes, but….” statements happening today. Sullivan says his biggest concern is that the next Facebook can’t develop because the current Facebook is so dominant.
Zuckerberg acknowledges that companies like his with lots of money can more easily absorb regulations.
Sullivan asks Zuckerberg if Facebook is a tech company or a publisher. Zuckerberg says he views Facebook as a tech company. Sullivan already calls him out on the “responsible for the content” statement from before. This is a conversation that’s going to go on for a very long time.
Senator Tom Udall rehashes the issue of what Facebook plans to do regarding fairness during elections. He wants to know if Zuckerberg will publicly advocate in Washington for legislation regarding fairness in elections. Zuckerberg says he doesn’t like coming to Washington. Zuckerberg says they will continue to invest in preventing fake news and fraudulent political ads.
Udall asks about the independent group Facebook is forming to investigate Facebook’s role in elections. Zuckerberg says the results will be public and we’ll start seeing them at the end of this year.
Senator Jerry Moran says the FTC is investigating Facebook to see if it has been in compliance with the 2011 consent order. He specifically asks how 87 million accounts with misused user data don’t violate the FTC’s mandate that users have to opt-in for sharing. Zuckerberg says it’s the fault of design that’s “not good.” Zuckerberg continues to suggest that users opt-in when they agree to the developer platform. He’s sure to explain that the platform requirements changed in 2014 and that kind of information sharing about friends is technically not allowed anymore.
Moran is asking about the bug bounty program that Facebook employs to deal with the sharing of information. This is one of the more nuanced questions so far. Zuckerberg says offering an incentive to outside parties will help them find abuses.
Senator Cory Booker goes back to the discriminatory housing ads that Facebook enabled in 2016 and impacted low-income communities and communities of color. He’s using it to illustrate that self-certification didn’t work in that case as the ads continued to run. Zuckerberg goes back to AI again. It’s clear that relying on AI to screen for content is the company’s goal for the future. The issue of AI picking up human biases will clearly be something the company will have to deal with in the future.
Booker specifically asks whether the new hires will be diverse as opposed to the rest of Silicon Valley which lacks in that area. Booker asks if Facebook would open the platform for civil rights organizations to audit the diversity practices. Zuckerberg says he thinks it’s a good idea. Someone tweet this in six months and see if they have made any progress there.
Booker’s last point is about ensuring that civil rights activists aren’t targeted and surveilled to undermine the work of those groups. Zuckerberg says Facebook will push back against unless there’s a strong legal case and subpoena.
Senator Dean Heller says his daughter and staff were all part of the Cambridge Analytica data issue. Heller asks if Facebook deletes information after an account is deleted. Zuckerberg says he doesn’t know how long it takes for user information to get deleted once they’re off the platform.
Heller keeps stepping in the trap of saying that Facebook “sells data,” which gives Zuckerberg the chance to pivot to the portability of data. Zuckerberg says he thinks Facebook keeps user data more secure than the federal government would. Mark Zuckerberg says he does consider the 87 million users to be “victims.”
Senator Gary Peters is the first to ask about the algorithms in the newsfeed! He asks about whether Facebook uses your microphone and listens to it can serve you ads and Zuckerberg answers with a flat, “no.”
Peters asks about transparency when developing AI algorithms. His questions are good, I just wish they were shorter so he could let Zuck talk more. Zuckerberg says they’re doing research now to give AI systems “principles.” Peters wonders if Facebook would provide the principles that are guiding the development. Zuckerberg says there’s a whole AI ethics team and the company will share data from it.
Senator Tillis is first up after the break and he’s going in on the 2012 Obama campaign for exploiting Facebook data. He’s not asking a lot of questions. He’s using the time to monolog against “heavy-handed” regulations that he worries will inhibit the next Facebook.
Senator Harris is going back to some of the important questions that haven’t gotten a hard answer yet. She asks if Facebook can track users when they’re not using the app and whether it tracks data across devices. Her primary question is about how the company initially handled the news in 2015 when they found out that Cambridge Analtyica bought user data. Zuckerberg says he doesn’t remember a conversation about the decision not to inform users about the misuse.
Zuckerberg admits that the company decided not to inform users in 2015 when the Cambridge Analytica information came to light.
Harris asks about the specific amount of revenue Facebook generated from foreign actors during the 2016 election. He says the IRA ran about $100,000 in campaign ads.
Senator John Kennedy takes primary issue with the complexity of the terms of service and the user agreement. He wants Zuckerberg to revise it. Now he’s asking a lot of questions about things he can already do, like download his data. “Your user agreement sucks. I’m going to suggest you go back home and re-write it.”
Senator Baldwin is interested in the nitty gritty aspects of consent. She asks about whether or not Facebook is vulnerable to a more traditional data breach or hack. Facebook has been very careful not to call this Cambridge Analytica issue a “breach.” Zuckeberg says other companies also got the Cambridge Analytica data including Eunoia, the company of the Cambride Analytica whistleblower. Yikes.
Senator Johnson starts out by pointing out that Facebook users aren’t happy that their data was mistreated. Zuckerberg says he’s not sure how a paid model of Facebook would work. Zuckerberg clearly has a lot of faith in the ad-driven model. If you’re clamoring to pay for Facebook, you probably shouldn’t get your hopes up.
Senator Hassan points out that a “decrease in user engagement” and time spent is crucial to Facebook’s revenue despite its potential harm on the mental wellness of users. She also points out that there’s a direct link between effective advertising and the company’s profits, which incentivizes Facebook to do whatever it takes to generate revenue.
Zuckerberg says that increasing time spent isn’t necessarily the best outcome for the company and namechecks the well-being studies the company has done. In short: happy people make them more money.
Senator Gardner talks about the idea that Facebook will delete an account, but it doesn’t necessarily remove things from the internet if they’re save somewhere else, a common talking point for parents. She asks if Facebook gets any money from someone clicking on and buying a product, like an affiliate deal. Zuck says it works like a basic ad system in which companies specifically pay to show people the ads. Facebook gets paid “when the action that the advertiser wants to happen happens.”
Senator Gardner asks about whether users know that Facebook tracks data about articles in non-Facebook tabs. Zuckerberg says yes because there’s a Facebook module on the page. Do websites still have badges to show how many of their friends like pages on Facebook? I don’t think I’ve seen that in a while.
Zuckerberg admits that Facebook has been hacked back in 2013, but says it didn’t expose user data. It was malware installed on employee computers.
“Has the government ever asked to remove a page?” Zuck says he believes so.
Senator Tester threw Zuckerberg a softball, asking him what the company is doing to make sure this doesn’t happen again. It’s an answer we’ve heard several times already today and we’ll likely hear several times tomorrow. He also reiterates the issue of ownership of content.
Senator Young starts his question in a room that has largely emptied out. He’s unsatisfied with Zuckerberg’s differentiation between companies like Facebook and Google and ISPs. Zuck explains by saying you wouldn’t want Verizon looking at data you send to Facebook because they don’t need to know what kind of data its transporting.
Young proposes laws that say “users own their data” or establishing a stronger policy of making users opt-in. It seems like the effect would depend on how many users on Facebook aren’t clear about how the service actually works.
Chairman Thune is closing by asking Zuckerberg to confirm that Facebook will protect free speech while it goes after “bad actors.” He’s clearly talking about political speech. Zuckerberg says he doesn’t want anyone at Facebook to make decisions based on the fundamental message in the content.
That’s it for tonight. We’re going to be doing this all again tomorrow at 10 AM. We’ll be here. We’re always here. See you on Facebook!