On Tuesday, Mark Zuckerberg began his two-day testimony before members of Congress. I had the hearing on in the background all afternoon as I worked on some other projects. (Note: I did not listen to all five hours of his testimony, so I surely missed some noteworthy discussion.)
I thought it would be helpful to share some of my thoughts and observations from the hearing so far. Here they are:
1. In general, Zuckerberg performed better than the senators.
A number of the members of the Judiciary Committee were knowledgable and asked good questions of Zuckerberg—I list some of them below. But it seemed to me that the vast majority of the senators were simply not even aware of some of the most basic functionalities of Facebook.
At one point Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) asked Mark Zuckerberg how Facebook planned to stay in business if they aren’t charging people for the service.
Zuckerberg responded, clearly confused by the ignorant question, “Senator…we run ads.”
I mean that’s sort of why he’s testifying to begin with…
It was a silly question, and it is a sort of summary of what appeared to be widespread ignorance among the senators about how basic Facebook functions work.
Overall, if the hearing was a boxing match, I’d have to give this round of the match to Zuckerberg. Not because he killed it—he didn’t.
But because it felt to me like there was far too much ignorance on behalf of the committee based on the questions they were asking.
This hearing was not the time to ask questions of the CEO that could be answered by Google.
2. Zuckerberg left the door open for further discussion about a paid, ad-less version of Facebook.
I tweeted during the hearing yesterday:
Zuckerberg in 2010: "Facebook will always be free."
Zuckerberg in 2018: "There always be a free version of Facebook."
I think a paid, ad-less FB may be a future product.
— chris martin (@ChrisMartin17) April 10, 2018
I doubt we will be seeing a paid, ad-less version of Facebook anytime soon, but I definitely think Zuckerberg left the door open to it.
3. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) quizzed Zuckerberg about what it determines is “good” or “bad” for its platform.
I thought it was unhelpful when Senator Cruz started to quiz Zuckerberg in such a way that he thinks Facebook is on a conservative witch hunt.
But, before he started to do that, Senator Cruz had a line of questioning about how Facebook thinks it can determine what is “good” or “bad” for its community from a moral perspective. But, our next point explains someone who took it further.
4. Senator Ben Sasse (R-NE) asked Zuckerberg to define “hate speech,” which he did not.
Throughout the hearing today, Zuckerberg spent a lot of time talking about the steps Facebook is taking to squelch abuse, terrorism, election meddling, hate speech, and other forms of destructive activity on the platform.
Every time he said this, I said to myself, “I wish someone would ask him what he means by ‘hate speech,’ because it could mean A LOT of things.”
Then, late in the hearing, Senator Sasse came through for me. I literally fist-pumped and said, “YES!” when he asked Zuckerberg to define “hate speech.”
Zuckerberg never really got around to defining hate speech, but he did say he would not consider “pro-life content” hate speech when Senator Sasse asked about such content.
5. Zuckerberg avoided an important question about Facebook tracking users browsing habits off Facebook.
I forget who it was now, but a senator early in the hearing asked Zuckerberg if Facebook can track the browsing habits of users once they leave Facebook and/or log off of the platform.
Zuckerberg sort of said “I don’t understand the question,” but also said, “I’ll have to get back to you with my team on that later,” or something to that effect (which he said a lot).
I don’t understand why he was so confused by this. I’m pretty sure that tracking Facebook users around the internet is EXACTLY what the Facebook Pixel is designed to do.
I use the Facebook Pixel to target ads on Facebook all the time, as do a LOT of companies and publishers. I am annoyed Zuckerberg got away without having to answer that question.
6. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) asks Zuckerberg why anyone should expect Facebook to be able to self-regulate.
I have written about it a lot here, and others have said the same: Facebook is almost certainly going to have to be regulated by the government.
It is a media company. Traditional media companies are regulated by the federal government. So far, social media organizations have not been regulated like traditional media companies.
Zuckerberg responded by saying he doesn’t think zero regulation is the right answer, but he also would not say he “embraces” regulation either, as Senator Graham also asked.
7. Senator Maggie Hassan (D-NH) asked Zuckerberg about how he balances the tension between doing what is best for users and doing what is best for advertisers.
Like I said at the top, I thought Zuckerberg performed better than the senators overall. But, a number of senators asked some really good questions, which I’ve listed here.
But, I thought Senator Hassan’s thoughts and ultimate question for Zuckerberg were the best of the day. Here is her question time:
Senator Hassan identified the tension that is ultimately at the core of Facebook. It is this: the more data-safe and privacy-minded Facebook makes its platform for its users, the less profitable its ad service becomes.
Facebook relies on selling ads as its primary source of revenue. It does this because the data it has on its users is so vast and specific. At the same time, Facebook says it wants to lock down the data of its users. These two things are in tension with one another.
I thought Senator Hassan’s line of questioning was really good and is ultimately the core of the issues around Facebook, its business, and its users’ data.
Senator John Kennedy (R-LA) lectured Zuckerberg like a father who is disappointed his son missed curfew. I don’t think Senator Kennedy’s line of questioning ultimately added a whole lot to the conversation, but I thought it was entertaining and interesting nonetheless:
Do you have any thoughts? Zuckerberg is due for more questioning today. We may have another post coming later this week.