Congress demands answers from Zuckerberg over handling of Facebook users' data
Congress on Tuesday grilled Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg for failing to safeguard the personal information of roughly 87 million users on the social-networking behemoth, suggesting that “sorry” is no longer enough and demanding answers about how he intends to prevent more problems.
“We're here because of what you described, Mr. Zuckerberg, as a breach of trust,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. “This is not likely to be an isolated incident. We want to hear more, without further delay, about what Facebook and other companies plan to do.
"We are listening. America is listening. Quite possibly, the world is listening.”
Zuckerberg, a billionaire tech genius and Harvard dropout who founded Facebook, testified Tuesday before the committee, following revelations that Cambridge Analytica, a political data-mining firm affiliated with Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, gathered personal data from millions of Facebook users, then used it to try to influence the White House race.
That episode is just the latest in a series of embarrassing and alarm-raising issues for the networking site -- including fake news and hate speech posts and Russian social media interference in the 2016 elections -- which has resulted in the biggest crisis in Facebook’s 14-year history and has lawmakers considering regulations.
The hearing Tuesday was standing room only, with visitors waiting in line for hours to get a seat in the hearing room. Protesters holding up placards reading, "Stop Corporate Spying," were allowed to remain in the room, but police quickly confiscated their signs.
The 33-year-old Zuckerberg spent Monday on Capitol Hill talking privately with key senators and apologizing behind the scenes, ahead of the joint hearing of the Judiciary and Commerce, Science and Transportation Committees and before testifying Wednesday before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
“Looking back, it's clear we were too slow identifying election interference in 2016, and we need to do better in future elections,” Zuckerberg said in an open letter posted on Facebook, minutes before he met privately with senators.
The House later posted Zuckerberg’s prepared testimony, in which he gives more full-throated testimony, saying: “We didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibility, and that was a big mistake. It was my mistake, and I’m sorry. I started Facebook, I run it and I’m responsible for what happens here.”
Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, the top Democrat on the Commerce, Science and Transportation panel, said after talking one-on-one with Zuckerberg that he found him “forthright and willing to turn things around where mistakes have been made.”
Nelson seemed skeptical afterward about whether Facebook was capable of fixing its own problems and protecting its 2.2 billion users – including many who use the site to stay in touch with family or make new friends with picture-filled posts.
But he also said that Zuckerberg was “serious” about the issues because “he understands that regulations are right around the corner.”
And he said that Zuckerberg told him: “We were lied to (by Cambridge Analytica. And we should have caught that.”
The hearings mark the first time in Zuckerberg’s career that he has gone before Congress, after declining a request last fall.
His appearances before the committees also follow days of preparation with some of Washington’s most experienced hands at testifying before Congress.
While the freewheeling tech industry is largely opposed to burdensome government regulations, Zuckerberg has appeared open to at least some changes.
“We know some members of Congress are exploring ways to increase transparency around political or issue advertising, and we’re happy to keep working with Congress on that,” he said in his prepared House testimony. “But we aren’t waiting for legislation to act.”
Zuckerberg has been in full damage-control mode since the reports surfaced several weeks ago about Cambridge Analytica.
In his Facebook post on Monday, Zuckerberg also announced plans for new artificial intelligence tools that will “take down thousands” of fake accounts and verify every political advertiser, and for an independent election research commission. And he said that preventing “interference and misinformation” in the 2018 midterm elections is among his “top priorities.”
Facebook is also telling users which apps each of them is using and what information the apps might have shared.
On Sunday, Cubeyou, a second data analytics firm used by Facebook, was suspended by Facebook as an investigation unfolds.
On Sunday, Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy also opened the door to regulating social media in the wake of the personal-data scandal.
“I don't want to hurt Facebook. I don't want to regulate them half to death,” Kennedy, a GOP member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “But we have a problem.”
When asked whether regulation is the answer, Kennedy said, “It may be the case.”