Mark Zuckerberg went to Washington Tuesday wearing a suit and mouthing his favorite bromides about doing good and bringing the world together with Facebook. He also promised to do much better job of protecting the privacy of his “community.”
But this time, in the wake of 87 million Facebook users having their privacy violated by Cambridge Analytica, most of the senators weren’t buying his young Jimmy Stewart act.
Despite Zuckerberg’s repeated references during the hearing to the origin story of him founding Facebook in his dorm room at Harvard, they were no longer treating him like the boy genius.
Instead, they were addressing him in harsher tones as the guy who betrayed his community — which is to say, 2.2 billion people worldwide — by not being a responsible steward of Facebook users’ data.
Zuckerberg started out in the packed hearing looking like his I-just-want-this-platform-to-do-good act still had legs. In fact, just before the two hour mark at about 4 p.m., he apparently thought he was doing so well that he took a pass on the offer of a short break. He was not just showing the senators he could take it, he looked as if he was starting to feel he had this hearing thing in hand.
Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, had nicked Zuckerberg a few minutes earlier when he asked the Facebook founder if he would like to tell the committee and audience members what hotel he spent Monday night in?
When Zuckerberg said no, Durbin asked if he would like to tell the audience who he had messaged last week.
When Zuckerberg again declined, Durbin said, “I think that may be what this [hearing] is about.”
Zuckerberg, he was pointing out, wouldn’t want his personal information shared. But that’s what Facebook does.
The damage went from Zuckerberg being nicked to being nailed when instead of taking the break the tech wunderkind found himself facing questions from Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat.
Blumenthal zeroed in on Facebook’s claim that a Cambridge University researcher, Aleksandr Kogan, violated his agreement with Facebook when he sold user data to Cambridge Analytica, which was involved in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
Zuckerberg has repeatedly claimed that Kogan, whose app initially gathered the data sold to Cambridge Analytica, had violated Facebook's terms of service, and that when it discovered the violation in 2015 it banned Kogan.
But Blumenthal produced a blown-up version of an agreement he said Kogan had sent to Facebook when he was seeking to place his app on the platform. It gave him the right to "edit, copy, disseminate, publish, transfer, merge with other databases, sell and archive" the data he gathered.
Zuckerberg claimed he had never seen that agreement. When asked by Blumenthal who would have been responsible for entering into that deal on behalf of Facebook, Zuckerberg said his company’s app review team. When asked if anyone from that team was fired for allowing the epic breach, Zuckerberg said no.
It was one of his worst moments all day.
The Cambridge questioning seemed to rattle Zuckerberg. He came back from a break a short time later saying he wanted to correct a claim he had made earlier in the hearing that Cambridge Analytica was banned form Facebook in 2015.
“They were on the platform,” he said.
Other senators hit Zuckerberg hard on his characterizations of how the breach was handled in 2015 and then again recently when a whistle blower revealed the extent of it.
Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, asked Zuckerberg why Facebook didn't let its users know about the breach in 2015, when it was first discovered.
"When we heard back from Cambridge Analytica that they that they weren't using the data and deleted it, we considered it a closed case," he told Nelson. "In retrospect, that was clearly a mistake. We shouldn't have taken their word for it."
This is another favorite Zuckerberg refrain: We were just too trusting.
But even if you give him that, it is still a lame excuse for not telling users what had happened to them in 2015.
Zuckerberg acknowledged that Facebook also didn’t tell the Federal Trade Commission. This, despite a consent decree Facebook signed with the FTC in 2011 promising to inform users before any of their data was shared.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) wasn't having any of Zuckerberg's non-answers when he challenged him on a memo written in 2016 by Andrew Bosworth, a Facebook vice president.
The memo said in part: "We connect people. That can be good if they make it positive ... That can be bad if they make it negative. Maybe it costs a life by exposing someone to bullies. Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated on our tools ... The ugly truth is that we believe in connecting people so deeply that anything that allows us to connect more people more often is *de facto* good."
Zuckerberg at first offered a non-answer saying, saying there was wide disagreement at Facebook about it.
But Graham cut him off saying, "This is an opinion that disturbs me, and if someone that worked for me said that, I'd fire them. "
Tuesday was not a good day for Zuckerberg or Facebook, as several senators focused on what they described as a business model that favored profits over protecting users’ privacy.
Zuckerberg and the digital giant might stave off regulation mostly because most members of Congress don’t seem to have the will to take on the tech giants or their massive lobby.
But it is going to be much harder for a lot of Facebook users to ever trust him or the company as they once did after the reality of what happened with Cambridge Analytics and the optics of his less than winning performance before the TV cameras on Capitol Hill Tuesday.