business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kate McMahon

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg endured five hours on the hot seat yesterday on Capitol Hill, taking full responsibility for his firm’s failure to protect user’s privacy.

Trading his signature gray cotton t-shirt and jeans for a conservative suit and Facebook logo-hued blue tie, the 33-year-old Zuckerberg appeared before a rare joint hearing of the Senate Judiciary and Commerce committees. Under the glare of television lights in a packed chamber, he took his seat on a leather chair with a four-inch black foam cushion.

Zuckerberg and his company have been under intense scrutiny in recent weeks, and his much-anticipated testimony before 44 senators was just Day One of his Washington mea culpa tour. He appears before the House Energy and Commerce Committee today.

Zuckerberg apologized for Facebook’s mishandling of personal information from some 87 million users, which was mined by a political consulting firm linked to the Trump presidential campaign. Conceding additional issues with fake news, hate speech and Russian social media influence in the 2016 elections, he admitted “we didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibility.”

“It was my mistake, and I’m sorry,” he said. “I started Facebook, I run it, and I’m responsible for what happens here.”

Zuckerberg reportedly received a “crash course in humility and charm” to prepare for his first appearance before Congress, and he appeared calm, contrite and deft at dodging questions, saying more than once, “I’ll have my team follow up with you.”

Certain senators were harshly critical in their questioning, while others clearly did not have a tangible understanding about what Facebook is or how the social network operates.

Amid debate about data, apps, obtuse user agreements, and even Facebook’s cooperation with Special Counsel Robert Mueller, a telling exchange with Senator Dick Durbin, the Illinois Democrat, drilled down on the key issue: privacy.

"Would you be comfortable sharing with us the name of the hotel you stayed in last night?"  Durbin asked Zuckerberg. After an awkward pause, Zuckerberg responded, “Um, no.”

There was laughter when Durbin then asked if Zuckerberg wanted to share names of those he had messaged this week, to which he smiled and said, “No. I would probably not choose to do that publicly here.”

“I think that may be what this is all about,” Durbin said. “Your right to privacy. The limits of your right to privacy. And how much you give away in modern America in the name of, quote, connecting people around the world.”

The well-prepared Zuckerberg dutifully listed steps Facebook had taken to prevent another breach such as the 2015 Cambridge Analytica debacle which reached a crescendo last month and forced his trip to Washington.

Many in the media questioned whether Silicon Valley boy wonder Zuckerberg would “man up” and take the blame. As previously stated, I don’t think he had any choice – he is the CEO and an adult multi-billionaire, after all.

I would agree with the early reviews that Zuckerberg handled himself well in the first round with lawmakers, even reversing a week’s long slide in Facebook’s stock price.

It will be interesting see if House lawmakers today aggressively push the need for more stringent governmental regulation of social media companies, which Zuckerberg and his tech cohorts have resisted.

Zuckerberg admitted Facebook has to do “a lot of work about building trust back.” I think it is imperative that Facebook prove to its 2.2 billion worldwide users (and government regulators) that it is implementing meaningful reforms and protecting their privacy.

Putting on a suit and saying I’m sorry isn’t enough.

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