Mark Zuckerberg made his long-awaited debut before Congress today during a marathon five-hour hearing before a joint session of the Commerce and Judiciary committees. Zuckerberg remained calm and sensible throughout the process, and the senators were mostly educated and deferential as they tried to understand how Facebook had inadvertently allowed the collection of profiles of up to 87 million people from Cambridge Analytica political data analysis firm.
In the weeks leading up to the hearing, Facebook made a series of announcements designed to show that it took the data leak seriously and was working to prevent it from happening again. Zuckerberg repeatedly referred to these changes today, which include facilitating the search for privacy shortcuts, restricting data shared with developers when you log in using your Facebook account, tagging political notices and making them available for public inspection and launching a program of rewards to reward people who find examples of data misuse.
Facebook also sent Zuckerberg and its chief of operations, Sheryl Sandberg, on a media tour to answer questions and refine their talking points. By the time today's hearing began, Facebook did what it could to make sure the day did not show on the news. Meanwhile, many senators still have difficulty understanding the basic questions about how Facebook collects data and earns money. (Suggestion: not selling that information to advertisers).
Still, here are the five most notable developments of today's audiences.
Zuckerberg had to face the monopoly power of Facebook. When Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) asked Zuckerberg to name his biggest competitor, Zuckerberg could not name one. He was repeatedly pressed into the large size of Facebook, and at one point he was asked if Facebook was too powerful. Zuckerberg objected. "I certainly do not think so," he said to Graham's monopolistic question. Senators seem to be dealing with the massive power of Facebook in a way they have never had before. But it is not clear that they have a coherent strategy to increase competition in the social media market.
Zuckerberg will not rule out a paid version of Facebook. The CEO took numerous questions about the company's business model and whether it could really protect the privacy of users since it relies heavily on collecting data about their lives and behavior. Multiple senators asked Zuckerberg if he could consider a paid version, without Facebook advertising in the future. He told Orrin Hatch that there would always be a free version of Facebook, suggesting that a paid option might be possible. Later, he told another senator that it was worth thinking about a paid version.
Zuckerberg relies heavily on the future promise of artificial intelligence. Every time he was asked about how Facebook would improve his moderation tools, Zuckerberg invoked AI's promise to help Facebook quickly classify hate speech and other problematic publications. It certainly seems possible for AI to improve Facebook's content moderation efforts, but it has not yet been proven.
The conspiracy about the Facebook targeting ads in you when snooping with your phone's microphone is now part of the Congress record. For years, Facebook has struggled to contain an urban legend that the advertising focus of the company is so effective because the company listens to their conversations in real time through the microphone of their phone. Thanks to Senator Gary Peters (D-MI), this is now a matter of public record. "Yes or no, does Facebook use the audio obtained from mobile devices to enrich personal information about users?" He asked. "No," said Zuckerberg.
Senators do not understand how Facebook works. The senators riddled Facebook with questions about the basic characteristics of their data collection and publicity practices. How does Facebook acquire the data? How long do you keep that information? How can users control what data they share? These are important questions, and senators probably spoke on behalf of most Americans when asked. At the same time, they wasted hours of testimony by asking questions of the CEO that can be answered by Google. And for the most part they did not answer deeper questions about how Facebook uses the data it collects. Of course, some senators argued that complexity in itself is the problem. As Senator John Kennedy said (R-LA) bluntly, if not kindly, "your user agreement sucks."
For more outstanding information from today's audience, read our live blog.