After 18 months of cascading scandals and under mounting pressure to address data privacy in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Mark Zuckerberg will testify before Congress for the first time this week. On Tuesday, the Facebook CEO will appear before a joint hearing of the Senate Commerce and Judiciary committees. The next day, he’ll face the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
In a prepared testimony, Zuckerberg apologizes for neglecting to address abuses of the platform, including fake news, the 2016 Russian misinformation campaign, hate speech, and data leaks. “We didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibility, and that was a big mistake,” he said in his prepared remarks. “It was my mistake, and I’m sorry. I started Facebook, I run it, and I’m responsible for what happens here.”
Zuckerberg’s remarks come after a weeklong media tour in which he talked to Vox’s Ezra Klein, held a Q&A with reporters, and sat for several one-on-one interviews. He also dispatched his chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg to give a series of interviewsapologizing for the company’s oversights.
In the wake of the scandals, Facebook has been battered by prominent critics, including Zuckerberg’s peers. Last week, when asked by Recode’s Kara Swisher what he would do if he were Zuckerberg, Apple CEO Tim Cook said, “What would I do? I wouldn’t be in this situation.”
But even as the company has set out to contain the damage, new crises have emerged. Most recently, the company was forced to explain on Thursday night why it had secretly deleted all of Zuckerberg’s Facebook messages without informing the recipients. Facebook said it would eventually roll that feature out to its entire user base. In the meantime, it was forced to acknowledge it had built a two-tiered privacy system in which the CEO enjoyed privacy features that his 2 billion-member user base does not.
Based on lawmakers’ comments in the days leading up to the hearing, Zuckerberg can expect a tough line of questioning, and he may find his company threatened with new regulations. “Facebook now plays a critical role in many social relationships, informing Americans about current events, and pitching everything from products to political candidates,” said Sen. John Thune (R-SD) in a statement. “Our joint hearing will be a public conversation with the CEO of this powerful and influential company about his vision for addressing problems that have generated significant concern about Facebook’s role in our democracy, bad actors using the platform, and user privacy.”
The proximate cause of Tuesday’s hearings is an investigation published last month by TheNew York Times and The Guardian. Journalists there uncovered a wide-ranging political data-mining scheme by the firm Cambridge Analytica, which obtained and used the personal information of up to 87 million people to target political advertising during the 2016 election. The data came from a University of Cambridge researcher named Aleksandr Kogan, who, in 2015, created a personality quiz app called “thisisyourdigitallife,” which was installed by 270,000 people. The app gave Kogan access to information from the users’ accounts, as well as information about their friends.
While lawmakers’ questions are expected to begin with Cambridge Analytica, previous tech executives to appear before Congress have found that lawmakers often use the occasion to address a wider range of issues. “What I care the most about is … what has this done, what is it doing to democracy?” Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA), a member of the House committee who represents Silicon Valley, told The Washington Post.
Zuckerberg’s testimony could help Facebook address concerns in the capital over the company’s data privacy practices, or it could give lawmakers new reasons to regulate the company. A Federal Trade Commission investigation is already underway, and multiple inquiries are unfolding abroad. After months of negotiations, Facebook said on Friday that it would support the Honest Ads Act, which would require disclosures around online political advertising similar to the disclosures that are required of broadcast media.
But while American regulators have been slow to act, their European counterparts have already launched into action. Starting next month, Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation takes effect. Passed in 2016, the rule requires any company that collects personal data about a citizen of the European Union to get that person’s explicit and informed consent. It also requires companies to let people revoke their consent and to request all data the company has collected about them.
Zuckerberg has said that it will eventually offer users comparable tools everywhere in the world — not just in the EU. In the meantime, it offers a template for American regulators who are beginning to consider new restrictions on how Facebook collects and uses data about us. When Zuckerberg meets Congress tomorrow, lawmakers are expected to give us a clearer sense of their thinking about these regulations and others.