Mark Zuckerberg steers the Senate towards Facebook-friendly regulations

After lawmakers made it clear they don't completely understand how Facebook collects and uses data, Zuckerburg seized the opportunity to influence potential new regulations.
Written by Stephanie Condon, Senior Writer

Over the course of several hours, with dozens of professional photographers pointing their lenses directly in his face, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Tuesday fielded questions from federal lawmakers on a range of tough subjects: how to ensure consumer privacy, how to police hate speech, how to consider who even counts as a Facebook competitor.

Tuesday's event -- a joint hearing of the Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees -- could have been a disaster for the young billionaire executive, given the slew of bad news that's come out about Facebook, all following the revelation that the British consulting firm Cambridge Analytica mishandled data from millions of Facebook users.

Instead, Zuckerberg effectively chalked up a victory for Facebook, using the opportunity to assure lawmakers that he's ready to work with them to develop rules to govern his company and the greater tech industry.

"Our position is not that regulation is bad," Zuckerberg said to one senator, reiterating a point he made repeatedly. "The internet is so important in people's lives, and it's getting more important. The real question is, what is the right framework for this -- not should there be one."

Lawmakers, for their part, seemed largely receptive to Zuckerberg's input -- in part because they don't entirely understand the technology or the business model behind Facebook.

One exchange with Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HA) showed how even the younger members of the Senate can have a hard time understanding concepts like end-to-end encryption.

"Let's say I'm emailing about 'Black Panther' in WhatsApp. Do I get a 'Black Panther' banner ad?" Schatz asked. Zuckerberg explained, "Facebook systems do not see the content of messages being transferred over WhatsApp."

Adjust these Facebook privacy settings to protect your personal data

Schatz said, "I know but... I'm asking about whether these systems talk to each other without a human being touching it." Zuckerberg, seemingly at a loss for how to answer, essentially repeated his previous response.

About four hours into the hearing, Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) laid out the situation pretty bluntly: "Mr. Zuckerberg, I come in peace," he said. "I don't want to have to vote to regulate Facebook, but by God, I will. But a lot of that depends on you."

Declaring that there are "impurities in the Facebook punchbowl," Kennedy warned Zuckerberg, "There are going to be a whole bunch of bills introduced." Still, he said, "It's up to you whether they pass or not. You can go back home spend $10 million on lobbyists and fight us. Or you can go back home and help us solve this problem."

Kennedy then proceeded to ask a series of questions that Zuckerberg deftly and succinctly answered. The exchange illustrated how Facebook has tread carefully in discussions about its handling of user data, keeping the upper hand even if that means obfuscating lawmakers (and the public) rather than enlightening them.

For instance, Kennedy asked, "Are you willing to give me more control over my data?" Zuckerberg replied, "Senator, I believe you should have complete control over your data," omitting any explanation of the way Facebook manipulates user data at the behest of advertisers, or the way third party applications have harvested data from the platform.

While declaring that Facebook users already have control over their data, Zuckerberg dodged questions about whether European-style privacy regulations should be applied in the US.

"I believe everyone in the world deserves good privacy protection," he said in response to the question from Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA). "And regardless of whether we implement the exact same regulation -- I guess it would be somewhat different because we have somewhat different sensibilities in the US... we're committed to rolling out the controls and affirmative consent and special controls around sensitive types of technology like face recognition."

Zuckerberg also dismissed the suggestion that Facebook is a monopoly (which would leave it vulnerable to anti-trust rules). "It certainly doesn't feel like that to me!" Zuckerberg retorted when Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) asked whether Facebook has monopoly power.

That question came after Graham grilled Zuckerberg over who, exactly, counts as Facebook's competition. "If I buy a Ford and it doesn't work -- well, I can buy a Chevy," Graham said. "If I'm upset with Facebook, what's the equivalent?"

Certainly, Facebook doesn't want the Federal Trade Commission to tell it to spin off parts of its business. And apparently, Zuckerberg thinks US "sensibilities" may not be in line with GDPR-style regulations.

Zuckerberg did, however, offer up some policy changes he'd approve, such as codified rules around "giving people complete control" of their data. Again, this is something that Zuckerberg insists Facebook already does.

He also mentioned that lawmakers need to strike a balance when regulating technologies like face recognition. "There's a balance that's important to strike here where you obtain special consent for features like face recognition, but we still need to make it so American companies can innovate," he said.

Zuckerberg at one point acknowledged that if Congress were to implement these new regulations, it probably wouldn't be that hard for Facebook to follow them.

"Part of the challenge of regulation in general is that when you add more rules that companies need to follow, that's something a larger company like ours inherently has the resources to do," he said.

As Kennedy said, Congress may soon try to change Facebook's business with "a whole bunch of bills." But if Zuckerberg's testimony is any indication, they may not be too much of a burden.

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