After watching the Facebook founder and CEO’s 48-hour trip to Capitol Hill, there are two possible conclusions: either Mark Zuckerberg deliberately misled Congress, or Mark Zuckerberg knows very little about his own company. Both are bad.
Again and again, before both Senate and House committees, Zuckerberg pleaded ignorance about the company he created and has controlled for 14 years. Zuckerberg wasn’t dodging questions about obscure corners of the company or corporate minutiae, but the most plainly fundamental aspects of Facebook’s business and privacy policies. Rather than the congressional beatdown many had expected, the most striking aspect of Zuckerberg’s testimony wasn’t his painful apologias or excuse-spinning, but his ability to spend nearly 10 hours saying almost nothing. The hearings may prove to be a sea change moment for Facebook and the greater data-mining industrial complex, but it would be hard to say the public learned much of anything.
When Sen. Kamala Harris asked Zuckerberg, on the subject of Cambridge Analytica, whether the company had any conversations about whether to inform the 87 million users affected, the CEO replied, “I don’t know if there were any conversations at Facebook overall because I wasn’t in a lot of them,” and finally “I don’t remember a conversation like that.”
When asked by Sen. Maria Cantwell whether Facebook employees had helped with Cambridge Analytica’s work: “Senator, I don’t know.”
When asked about the role of Palantir, a data-mining defense contractor co-founded by Facebook board member and early Zuckerberg ally Peter Thiel: “I’m not really that familiar with what Palantir does.”
Zuckerberg acted similarly confused when asked whether Facebook does things it openly says it does on its own website. When Sen. Roger Wicker asked Zuckerberg if he could confirm whether “Facebook can track a user’s internet browsing activity, even after that user has logged off of the Facebook platform,” the CEO replied, “Senator — I — I want to make sure I get this accurate, so it would probably be better to have my team follow up afterwards.”
The answer is categorically, unequivocally yes, according to Facebook.com: “If you’re logged out or don’t have a Facebook account and visit a website with the Like button or another social plugin, your browser sends us a more limited set of info.”
When Sen. Roy Blunt asked Zuckerberg whether Facebook tracks users across devices (say, from their iPhone to their iPad), he replied that he was “not sure of the answer to that question.”
Meanwhile, on Facebook.com:
On 13 separate occasions on his first day of testimony, Zuckerberg told senators that he would have his “team” eventually “follow up” with an answer.
Zuckerberg’s evasiveness, to put it politely, continued well into the House hearing, including examples that less generous observers might call “lies”:
Zuckerberg tells Rep. Mullin that Facebook can't track what you do on non-FB apps. But FB owns and promotes a VPN service (Onavo) that is explicitly designed to track user activity across apps. https://t.co/zcY4eQt0WP
— Kevin Roose (@kevinroose) April 11, 2018
It was only in the House session that anyone called out Zuckerberg’s unwillingness to act like he’s been running Facebook since 2004, when Rep. Debbie Dingell blasted the CEO:
As CEO, you didn’t know some key facts. You didn’t know about major court cases regarding your privacy policies, against your company. You didn’t know that the FTC doesn’t have fining authority, and that Facebook could not have received fines from the 2011 consent order. You didn’t know what a shadow profile was. You didn’t know how many apps you need to audit. You did not know how many other firms have been sold data by Dr. Kogan, other than Cambridge Analytica and Eunoia Technologies, even though you were asked that question yesterday. And yes, we were all paying attention yesterday. You don’t even know all the kinds of information Facebook is collecting from its own users.
Is it really possible that the CEO of a company could be so unaware of what his company does from day to day? Again, these weren’t cases about unlikely scenarios or what-ifs, but the fundamentals of the business. So again, Zuckerberg seems to have either lied to Congress (by omission, perhaps) or not have very much beyond a Wikipedia level of familiarity with his own company.
Mark Zuckerberg seems to have either lied to Congress or not have very much beyond a Wikipedia level of familiarity with his own company.
It’s not out of the question that Zuckerberg really doesn’t know much about Facebook. In recent years, he’s been more visible on his strange Silicon Valley-meets-America goodwill tour, posing for photos in diners and atop tractors, than weighing in on actual Facebook matters. It’s also worth remembering that COO Sheryl Sandberg is only the most recent (and prominent) “adult” brought into Facebook to govern where Zuckerberg is unable or unwilling; Antonio García Martínez, who worked at Facebook for two years as a product manager helping the company pioneer new ad targeting methods, claimed in an interview that Zuckerberg “outsources much of the CEO job to Sheryl,” and could actually be as ignorant as he appeared on the Hill. (Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)
Facebook’s defenders will point to this as a good thing; Zuckerberg is the “ideas guy,” the product genius, while Sandberg (undoubtedly a highly intelligent and savvy executive) runs the less glamorous areas of “actually running a business.” It’s hard to imagine this kind of arrangement, wherein a CEO is basically absolved from responsibility for and knowledge of his own company because he’s too brilliant, flying at most other American corporations. But it’s doubly troubling given that Facebook’s current crisis is a crisis of accountability, an outrage over the existence of a gigantic, information-swallowing machine so vast and powerful that no one really seems to be able to explain it.
Zuckerberg’s congressional debut is already being hailed by pundits as a win for the executive and his advertising company, if only because the worst-case scenario of him crying or falling over didn’t come to pass. But if Zuckerberg can get away with evasion, omission, and deception before members of Congress, what chances for accountability do Facebook’s 2 billion users around the world possibly have? How can a company reform or “self-regulate” its frightening global data-mining operation when its chief executive is either unable or unwilling to answer yes-or-no questions about that operation? This should be as scandalous and unsettling as anything coming out of Cambridge Analytica.