Mark Zuckerberg vows to fight election meddling in marathon Senate grilling

Facebook’s CEO appeared before Congress in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal to address concerns over users’ data

Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook chief executive, warned on Tuesday of an online propaganda “arms race” with Russia and vowed that fighting interference in elections around the world is now his top priority.

The 33-year-old billionaire, during testimony that lasted nearly five hours, was speaking to Congress in what was widely seen as a moment of reckoning for America’s tech industry. It came in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal in which, Facebook has admitted, the personal information of up to 87 million users were harvested without their permission.

Zuckerberg’s comments gave an insight into the unnerving reach and influence of Facebook in numerous democratic societies. “The most important thing I care about right now is making sure no one interferes in the various 2018 elections around the world,” he said under questioning by Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico.

The senator made reference to a billboard displayed earlier in the hearing that showed images – including Trump, the Green Party candidate Jill Stein and the Confederate flag – allegedly spread online by Russian operatives during the 2016 presidential election. He asked if Zuckerberg could guarantee such images would not appear on Facebook again.

“Senator, no, I can’t guarantee that because this is an ongoing arms race,” the CEO said. “As long as there are people sitting in Russia whose job it is to try and interfere with elections around the world, this is going to be an ongoing conflict.”

Earlier in the hearing, Zuckerberg acknowledged that “one of my greatest regrets in running the company” was being slow to uncover and act against disinformation campaigns by Russian trolls during the election.

The blockbuster joint hearing of the US Senate’s commerce and judiciary committees on Capitol Hill was a humbling moment for the young entrepreneur. Wearing a suit, white shirt and sky blue tie instead of his customary T-shirt, he sat contrite and silent as senator after senator expressed deep concerns about the company’s gathering of personal information.

Senator Bill Nelson, a Democrat, told him: “Let me just cut to the chase. If you and other social media companies do not get your act in order, none of us are going to have any privacy anymore. If Facebook and other online companies will not or cannot fix the privacy invasions, then we are going to have to. We, the Congress.”

Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify before a joint hearing of the US Senate commerce, science and transportation committee and the Senate judiciary committee.
Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify before a joint hearing of the US Senate commerce, science and transportation committee and the Senate judiciary committee. Photograph: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Senator John Thune, a Republican and the chairman of the Senate commerce committee, noted that Facebook’s business model offers a free service in exchange for personal data. “For this model to persist, both sides of the bargain need to know what’s involved,” he said. “I’m not convinced Facebook’s users have the information they need to make decisions.”

Thune added: “Mr Zuckerberg, in many ways you and the company that you’ve created, the story you’ve created, represent the American dream ... At the same time, you have an obligation, and it’s up to you, to ensure that dream doesn’t become a privacy nightmare for the scores of people who use Facebook.”

Zuckerberg and Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, have been on a media apology tour since the Cambridge Analytica story broke in the Observer, the Guardian’s sister Sunday newspaper in the UK, and he continued to apologize several times during Tuesday’s hearing.

Zuckerberg acknowledged that Facebook should not have trusted Cambridge Analytica’s assurance that it would stop using the personal information it harvested. “In retrospect, that was a mistake. We shouldn’t have taken their word for it. We considered that a closed case.” He admitted that Facebook did not alert the Federal Trade Commission about the data collection.

Under questioning, he promised that Facebook was conducting a “full investigation” into every app that has access to users’ information, numbering tens of thousands. “If we find they’re doing anything improper, we’ll ban them from Facebook,” he said.

He also initially claimed that Cambridge Analytica had not been an advertiser in 2015 but, after a brief adjournment in which he consulted with staff, he corrected himself: it had indeed been an advertiser later that year and therefore could have been banned.

When Zuckerberg, who was making his first appearance before Congress, first took his seat, surrounded by a thick forest of clicking cameras, he looked somewhat like a prisoner in the dock. But he seemed to grow in confidence as the afternoon wore on and tried to appear open and cooperative. He frequently used the respectful term “Senator” and complimented them for asking “important questions”, some of which he said “his team” would report back on later.

Some senators tried to throw him off balance. John Kennedy of Louisiana said bluntly: “Your user agreement sucks.” Democrat Dick Durbin asked: “Would you be comfortable sharing with us the name of the hotel you stayed in last night?” There was a long pause before Zuckerberg replied: “No.” There was laughter in the room.

But the Facebook co-founder was not eviscerated as some commentators had predicted. The stock market agreed: Facebook’s price, which had fallen badly in recent weeks, ended the day up 4.5%. Zuckerberg evidently felt he was acquitting himself well. When Thune asked if he wanted a break after nearly two hours in the spotlight, the witness said: “We can do a few more.” He turned and smiled at his team and there was laughter in the public gallery.

Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal then almost gave him cause to regret it. He challenged Facebook’s contention that Aleksandr Kogan, a Moldovan-born researcher from Cambridge University, deceived the company when he harvested user data. Blumenthal had what he claimed was a previously undisclosed 2014 terms of service document that explicitly permitted Kogan to “sell, licence (by whatever means and on whatever terms) and archive your contribution and data”.

Blumenthal said: “We’ve seen the apology tours before. You have refused to acknowledge even an ethical violation to report this violation of the FTC consent decree. My reservation about your testimony today is that I don’t see how you can change your business model unless there are specific rules of the road. Your business model is to maximise profit over privacy.”

Several topics dominated the hearing, including the 2016 presidential election. Zuckerberg confirmed that Facebook officials have been interviewed by officials from the special counsel Robert Mueller, who has been investigating Russia’s role in meddling in the 2016 election. “I know we are working with them,” said Zuckerberg, acknowledging that “there may be” a subpoena but he was uncertain.

Regulation was also brought up repeatedly, including by the Republican senator Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, who asked Zuckerberg whether Facebook was a monopoly. “It certainly doesn’t feel like that to me,” he replied, prompting mirth in the public gallery. Graham pressed him on the issue of regulation. Zuckerberg said: “My position is not that there should be no regulation.”

Asked if Facebook would therefore embrace regulation, the CEO said: “If it’s the right regulation, then yes.” Graham: “Would you work with us?” Zuckerberg: “Absolutely.”

Senator John Cornyn pushed him on whether Facebook is a neutral platform. Zuckerberg replied: “I agree that we are responsible for the content” – a significant concession that could open the way for Facebook to be held to the same legal standards as a traditional media company.

Zuckerberg will face a second grilling on Wednesday from the US House energy and commerce committee.


David Smith in Washington

The GuardianTramp

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