Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO of Facebook, the “F” in Wall Street’s favorite acronym FANG, testified before the U.S. Senate Tuesday, April 10, with regard to privacy, Russian spying, political neutrality versus political advocacy speech, and much else.
For the most part Zuckerberg stuck to his talking points, which were deliberately boring. He said that yes, Facebook had made mistakes, that the buck for those mistakes stopped with him, and that he and others answerable to him would try harder to serve the needs of the users and the public. He also seemed to accept the fact that his company will become the object of legislative/regulatory activity distinct from the relative laissez-faire space it has enjoyed since its founding.
Right Wing View
Cruz was unhappy about the fact that Facebook has deleted the Facebook posts and pages of some conservative groups. He tried to get Zuckerberg to say that Facebook was an advocacy group with its own agenda, and was not in the business of providing a neutral public forum.
Cruz referred to section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which in effect grants the providers of “interactive computer services” a certain degree of legal immunity. It says that they shall not be treated as “publishers.” That means, in effect, libel committed through the internet is the libel of the actual speaker, not (necessarily) of the institution that provided the speaker with a chunk of cyberspace.
So Cruz was asking Zuckerberg in effect: does Facebook claim that immunity, or is it willing to open itself to the same sort of liabilities as a traditional pre-internet publisher under libel laws? If it wants to claim the immunity, it helps if it can maintain credibility as a neutral public forum. If it wants first amendment protection for its non-neutral advocacy, though, it may end up in effect waiving section 230 protection.
Zuckerberg was unwilling to grasp either of the horns of that dilemma, unwilling either to claim neutrality or to own up to advocacy. He said “we consider ourselves to be a platform for all ideas.” He then started to give a historical overview of the development of Facebook’s attitudes toward various political views: Cruz cut him short and said there were limits on their time. When Cruz pressed further, Zuckerberg said that it is not “our goal” to engage in political speech, but he also said he wasn’t familiar with section 230 and would have to follow up on that point later.
Left Wing View
Zuckerberg might have responded that Facebook is neutral in that it has as many detractors on the left as it does on the right. And he would have found evidence of this in that room.
One member of the audience was dressed as a Russian troll. He wore a Russian flag as a neckerchief and a wig that looked like the conical/spiral tuft of hair on the top of a troll doll. The point presumably was that Facebook had (if only through negligence) aided the success of the Russian internet trolls (who don’t necessarily have hair like that) who were in turn working to benefit now-President Trump.
Among those asking the questions, too, Zuckerberg faced zingers from his left, notably from Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA). She grilled him about a data breach in 2015 and about how Facebook decided not to tell users about it.
She wanted to know whether there was ever “a conversation in which the decision was made” not to do so.
Zuckerberg offered no direct answer to that, but he did acknowledge that the failure to be straightforward about that data breach was a “mistake.”
Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), by most accounts one of the Senate’s centrists, tried to get Zuckerberg to acknowledge that Facebook is effectively a monopoly.
“If I buy a Ford and it doesn’t work well and I don’t like it, I can buy a Chevy,” he said. But “if I’m upset with Facebook, what’s the equivalent product that I can go sign up for?”
He did not get a straight answer, except that other services overlap with what Facebook provides. Alex Ward, at Vox, praised Graham for this “sharp line of questioning.”