Oct 23, 2019

Mark Zuckerberg assailed from all directions in Hill marathon

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

More than 50 members of Congress barraged Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg from all directions at a six-hour House Financial Services Committee hearing on Wednesday that ranged far afield from its ostensible topic — Facebook's cryptocurrency project, Libra.

Driving the news: Instead, Wednesday's hearing focused on Facebook's handling of discrimination and civil rights and its lack of diversity, its role in elections, free speech and content moderation, monopolistic behavior, anonymity, terrorism, child sexual abuse, and more.

Why it matters: As Facebook is broadening its ambitions with Libra, aiming to revamp the global financial system singlehandedly, lawmakers from both parties are determined to hold the tech giant responsible for an ever-wider portfolio of troubles.

The big picture: A year and a half after Zuckerberg first testified before Congress amid the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Committee Chair Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) welcomed the CEO with an onslaught of criticism and made it clear that for many at the Capitol, distrust of Facebook has only hardened since then.

Details: Facebook is now positioning Libra as a processing platform for online payments, rather than as a substitute currency. An independent nonprofit Libra Association will manage the system, while Facebook will operate a "wallet" business called Calibra.

  • Zuckerberg pledged that Facebook would not launch Calibra anywhere in the world until it passed muster with U.S. regulators.
  • If the Libra Association tried to move forward with Libra before it got the OK from U.S. authorities, he said Facebook would drop the project.

What they said about Libra:

  • Zuckerberg indicated Libra would bring disadvantaged people into the financial system and help keep the U.S. at the forefront of the finance industry by updating its "crufty" system.
  • Republicans wanted to know why the Libra Association was based in Switzerland, rather than the U.S., and they questioned if a successful Libra could undercut the dollar's role as the world's reserve currency. They also asked how Libra could help the U.S. avoid falling behind China as cryptocurrencies and blockchain tech evolve.
  • Democrats charged that Zuckerberg's aim of helping the "unbanked" was a disingenuous cover for a power play — a way for "the richest man in the world to come here and hide before the poorest people in the world," as Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) put it. They also argued that Facebook's lack of diversity, its record of allowing housing-ad discrimination, and its record violating user privacy left it without the public trust needed by the builder of a financial system.
  • Facebook won't provide anonymity through Calibra, but the wider Libra platform won't ban anonymity. Several lawmakers asked whether that would be a boon to terrorists, drug dealers and other criminals.
    • The answer: Zuckerberg pledged that Facebook would stay clean, but hedged on the wider issue.
  • Of the 21 institutions that are part of the Libra Association, how many are headed by women, minority-group members, LGBTQ people?
    • The answer: Zuckerberg didn't know.

What Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) asked about lying in political ads:

  • Ocasio-Cortez: "Could I target ads against Republicans in primaries saying that they voted for the Green New Deal?"
  • Zuckerberg: "I don't know the answer to that off the top of my head. I think, probably."
  • Ocasio-Cortez: "Do you see a potential problem here with a complete lack of fact-checking on political advertisements?"
  • Zuckerberg: "I think lying is bad, and if you ran an ad with a lie, that would be bad." He added that in a democracy, Facebook should allow the public to judge for itself what politicians say.

What they asked about everything else:

  • Several representatives asked versions of, "Is Facebook really serious about letting politicians lie in ads?"
    • The answer: Yes.
  • Asked Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.): Does Facebook keep any of its own assets in minority depository institutions?
    • The answer: Zuckerberg didn't know.
  • Asked Rep. Roger Williams (R-Texas): "Mr. Zuckerberg, are you a capitalist or are you a socialist?"
    • The answer: "I would definitely consider myself a capitalist."
  • Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Mo.) asked whether Facebook's plans to encrypt most of its service would make it harder to find and root out the millions of images of child sex abuse on the platform, citing a New York Times report.
    • The answer: "We actually do a better job than everyone else at finding it and acting on it, but you're right that in an end-to-end encrypted world, one of the risks I'm worried about is that it will be harder to find this behavior."
  • Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) asked how Facebook can justify allowing anti-Muslim hate groups to organize via its events pages.
    • The answer: "It's hard to police every instance of this. ... We are improving."
  • Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) asked whether Zuckerberg would be willing to spend an hour a day moderating violent or abusive video content.
    • The answer: "I'm not sure it would best serve our community."
  • Rep. Sean Casten (D-Ill.) asked if he and President Trump talked about the antitrust investigations of Facebook when they met.
    • The answer: "I don't think so, but the meeting was private overall."
  • Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.): "In your adult life, have you ever been underbanked?"
    • The answer: "I'm going to go with no."
  • Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.) asked whether Zuckerberg was personally involved in Facebook's decision not to remove a manipulated video of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that made it seem like her speech was slurred.
    • The answer, after a long pause: Yes.

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