Hugs all round, the Zuck finds Congress a bit of a breeze | John Crace

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg needn’t have worried as grilling on data misuse turns into a kid-glove stroking

The Facebook share price may have risen 5% after the Senate failed to lay a glove on him the previous day, but Mark Zuckerberg still looked tense as he settled into his booster seat in preparation for his session before Congress. He needn’t have worried. His programmers had done their job just fine and his algorithms were all in order.

It might be a little tougher than the day before, but the next few hours were still going to sail by in a blur of anodyne animatronics.

Zuckerberg started with a five-minute prepared statement. All he’d ever wanted in life was to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony but one thing had led to another and he’d been devastated to wake up one morning to find he was one of the richest people on the planet and that various evil people were doing beastly things on his beloved Facebook.

He was trying to stamp it out, he added, attempting the expression his operators had assured him could be interpreted as sincere, though it was a challenge.

The first few questions came from committee chair, Greg Walden. Was Facebook a media company? Oh no! It was just a total coincidence it had livestreamed 25 Major League Baseball games. Was Facebook a financial institution? Oh no! It was just a total coincidence people could send each other money through it.

Had he ever thought to monetise people’s data? “We don’t sell people’s data,” Zuckerberg said, sounding hurt. There was no need when he could flog so many advertisements instead.

Just when it looked as if we might be getting somewhere, Walden called himself to heel. Every questioner was just going to get four minutes each and it was too bad if they had to bail out half way through a promising line of inquiry.

The Zuck began to relax and the first hint of a smile crossed his face. This was going to be a doddle after all. Just ramble on in vague generalities to wind the clock down. And if things felt like they were getting a bit tricky either say, “I respectfully disagree” or “that’s too complex to answer here, let me get back to you”.

It also turned out that some Republican representatives weren’t even that interested in asking him anything about the data scraping scandal involving Cambridge Analytica that had prompted the hearing in the first place.

Joe Barton merely wanted to know why a couple of Conservative bloggers had been shut down on Facebook, while Fred Upton reckoned that more regulation might make life too tricky for start-ups to compete with Facebook. As if they stood a chance.

A third Republican used his four minutes to share pictures of his dad while another almost sobbed as he described the amount of money he had raised for charity through Facebook.

It was all the Zuck could do to prevent himself from running across the chamber to give these guys a hug. He’d never expected to be asked such intelligent and perceptive questions.

The Democrats were a little more forensic but they too were stymied by the four-minute rule. Anna Eshoo tried to narrow things down by asking some yes or no questions, but rather blew it by wasting half her allotted time in a pointless preamble. And even when it looked momentarily as if Zuck was close to being put on the spot all he had to do was drag out his answers. Yes but no but yes but no but yes but no but what was the question again?

Just occasionally a few nuggets did come out. We learned that the Zuck’s own data had been mined by Cambridge Analytica, though we didn’t discover what ads pop up for socially awkward, secretive billionaires. We learned that Facebook was thinking about suing Alexander Analytica.

Most bizarrely of all, we learned that the Zuck thought there was a huge team of Cambridge University academics hell-bent on undermining Facebook. Needless to say we ran out of time before he was able to expand on that.

But mostly we learned exactly what Zuckerberg wanted us to learn. Which was not very much. Just that he was this misunderstood dude who was more sinned against than sinning. This dude who was devastated to find that some people had taken advantage of him but hadn’t quite got round to doing anything about it. This dude who just happened to be CEO of one of the most profitable companies in the world and was giving his best impression of someone who didn’t have a clue how it was run.


John Crace

The GuardianTramp

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