WASHINGTON — Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerbergs debut as a Capitol Hill witness began Tuesday with top lawmakers questioning whether the time has come for the government to take a heavier hand in regulating the sprawling internet industry.
“Im not convinced that Facebooks users have the information they need to make meaningful choices,” Senate Commerce Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) said in opening remarks. “In the past, many of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle have been willing to defer to tech companies efforts to regulate themselves. But this may be changing.”
The 33-year-old tech tycoon faces a bench of lawmakers whose frustration with Facebook has festered for more than a year and whose gripes with the company now range from consumer data privacy to Russian election interference.
The congressional testimony represents a key test for Zuckerberg as he tries to staunch weeks of negative headlines that have dented the companys stock price and raised doubts about his leadership. An online campaign calling on people to “#DeleteFacebook” has become a persistent threat to the social network.
Facebook has faced scrutiny for months over fake news articles and Russia-linked accounts that stoked political tensions and sought to sway voters during the 2016 election. Lawmakers have openly questioned whether Facebook has full control over its platform and criticized executives responses to the meddling as half-hearted.
The companys stock has fallen 15 percent since the Cambridge Analytica story broke.
But the companys problems exploded last month, when news reports revealed that Cambridge Analytica, a political data firm connected to President Donald Trumps campaign, improperly accessed the personal information of tens of millions of Facebook users. The social network has since said as many as 87 million people may be affected.
Zuckerberg will adopt a tone of contrition in his appearance before the Senate Commerce and Judiciary committees Tuesday. He will speak to the House Energy & Commerce Committee on Wednesday. “We didnt take a broad enough view of our responsibility, and that was a big mistake. It was my mistake, and Im sorry,” hell say, according to prepared testimony.
The CEO, though, will be walking into a political buzzsaw. Democratic leaders began the hearing by hammering Zuckerberg for lax oversight of privacy and Kremlin meddling.
“Facebook has a responsibility to protect this personal information,” Senate Commerce ranking member Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said in opening remarks. “Unfortunately, I believe that the company failed to do so. This is not the first time that Facebook has mishandled its users information.”
In recent weeks, Facebook has sought to get ahead of Congress with a series of announcements about how it will self-police its platform.
Meanwhile, Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) was the first of potentially several Republicans to draw comparisons between Cambridge Analytica and President Barack Obamas 2012 reelection campaign in their use of Facebook data — implying that Republicans arent the only ones engaging in questionable social media tactics.
“The effectiveness of these social media tactics can be debated, but their use over the past years across the political spectrum and their increased significance cannot,” Grassley said in opening remarks.
Investors fear that the rising criticism of Facebook could eventually shift from rhetoric to regulation, especially as Washingtons once-rosy view of Silicon Valley has soured. The companys stock has fallen 15 percent since the Cambridge Analytica story broke.
Zuckerberg last week endorsed the Honest Ads Act, S. 1989 (115), a bill that would require disclosures for online political ads, but some lawmakers want more rules. Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass.), for example, plans to introduce legislation that would give people greater say in how their data are used. Senators Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) also said theyre working on legislation.
Naysayers have even emerged from within Silicon Valley. Apple CEO Tim Cook recently took a veiled shot at Facebooks troubles, saying businesses that sell consumer products, rather than consumer data, are more likely to care about peoples privacy. Zuckerberg hit back, calling the remark “extremely glib” and “not at all aligned with the truth.”
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before the Senate Judiciary and Commerce committee on Tuesday | Win McNamee/Getty Images
After Zuckerberg initially gave himself some wiggle room to get out of a congressional appearance — saying he was happy to testify unless another Facebook executive was more qualified to answer the questions — it became clear that nothing less than the CEO himself would satisfy lawmakers.
In recent weeks, Facebook has sought to get ahead of Congress with a series of announcements about how it will self-police its platform. The company said it will simplify how it displays privacy settings and make users aware of third-party applications collecting their data. It also pledged to eliminate an advertising program that relied on data from outside brokers.
The social network further closed 270 accounts and pages operated by the Kremlin-aligned Internet Research Agency, a leading agent of Russian meddling in the 2016 election. And Facebook said it would require greater transparency about who pays for advertisements about divisive issues, such as gun control or immigration, like the kind that Russian operatives exploited during the campaign.
“Im hoping … that Mr. Zuckerberg doesnt spend a lot of time saying sorry and apologizing” — U.S. Senator John Kennedy
Zuckerberg and Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg have touted these commitments on a media apology tour, taking responsibility for holes in privacy enforcement that allowed Cambridge Analytica to gain access to the information and reportedly keep it for years after Facebook asked the firm to delete it.
The Facebook CEO is walking a well-trodden path. Tech leaders like Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and Cook have been hauled before Congress to defend their businesses practices, as have other CEOs whose tone and words are put under a microscope as their reputations hang in the balance.
Its a high-stakes performance for Zuckerberg, who in the past has preferred to send Sandberg to smooth relations with lawmakers or dispatch his general counsel, Colin Stretch, who testified at multiple hearings on Russian election interference last fall.
The companys employees and tech industry peers — not to mention all of Washington — will be watching intently to see how he performs.
“Im hoping … that Mr. Zuckerberg doesnt spend a lot of time saying sorry and apologizing,” Senator John Kennedy (R-La.) said Monday. “We all know hes responsible. Hes the president of the company. I hope hell use his time to say, Hey, Im on this.'”
Ashley Gold, John Hendel and Li Zhou contributed to this report.