Mark Zuckerberg may have become more confident and calm in facing congressional inquisitions, but his company faces even deeper trouble with lawmakers ready to punish Facebook for its transgressions on privacy, civil rights, competition and the future of U.S. democracy.
The main topic of Wednesdays House financial services committee hearing was supposed to be Facebooks plans to launch Libra, a digital currency that critics worry would undermine the international financial system. But the Facebook CEO wound up facing more than five hours of often-strafing questions on the companys role in society, as Chairwoman Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and other Democrats openly mused that maybe the time has come to break up the giant social network.
The hearing went as designed, Waters told reporters afterward. “I told him that we were not going to make it comfortable for him,” she said. “I dont think that he should be moving forward with this huge project and this big idea with all of these other concerns that have not really been resolved.”
These are POLITICOs top revelations from Wednesdays hearing:
Democrats list of grievances keeps growing
Hours of questioning from the panels Democrats reflected just how far Facebooks fortunes have fallen with the party. Once the darling of Obama-era Democratic Washington, the company today faces a barrage of criticism from the left, most vocally expressed by Senator Elizabeth Warrens (D-Mass.) trust-busting calls on the 2020 campaign trail.
And Facebook has only itself to blame, Waters told Zuckerberg.
“You have opened up a serious discussion about whether Facebook should be broken up,” the California Democrat said early in the hearing as she reeled off a series of complaints about everything from the companys role in facilitating foreign interference in U.S. elections to the lack of diversity in its leadership ranks.
That set the tone for much of the rest of the day, as the committees Democrats repeatedly lambasted Facebook for allowing politicians to lie in political ads without facing fact-checking — a policy that has drawn the ire of top 2020 contenders including Warren and Joe Biden, himself the subject of a misleading attack ad from the Trump campaign.
Zuckerberg insisted that the decision is rooted in Facebooks commitment to free speech, and that the company wants to ensure “people can see for themselves what politicians are saying.” But that didnt appear to sway lawmakers.
“Why should the very politicians who lead our country be held to a lower standard for truthfulness and decency than the average American?” asked Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.).
Tlaib, who is a Muslim, also objected to posts showing that white supremacists have used Facebook events pages to organize armed protests of mosques. “It is hate speech. It is hate. And its leading to violence and death threats in my office,” she said, adding, “We need to be able to play a part in reducing that violence.”
Other lawmakers questioned Facebooks track record on civil rights. Rep. Al Green (D-Texas) pressed Zuckerberg on whether the leaders steering the Libra Association, which will manage Libra, include any people of color or members of the LGBTQ community. (Zuckerberg didnt know.)
Several raised issues like Facebooks alleged violations of federal housing laws in the wake of accusations by the Department of Housing and Urban Development that the company has allowed marketers to exclude users by race in real estate ads, and its inability to stop Russia-backed trolls from heavily targeting African American users in their 2016 meddling campaign.
When Zuckerberg couldnt answer questions about the companys ongoing civil rights audit, Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio) scoffed. “Its almost like you think this is a joke, when you have ruined the lives of many people, discriminated against them,” she said.
Republicans are more scattered on what they think of Facebook
The hearing underscored the divide in the GOP about how to rein in Facebook, thanks to a mix of competing instincts over whether to praise the company for its business innovation or criticize it for intervening in the financial system and policing free speech.
The committees lead Republican, North Carolina Rep. Patrick McHenry, tried to set the tone for the hearing by warning that “American innovation is on trial today.” He also slammed California Democrat Brad Sherman for predicting that Libra could wreak even more damage than the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“I have my qualms about Facebook and Libra, I do, and the shortcomings of big tech — there are many,” said McHenry, who also related an anecdote about early attempts to regulate automobiles. “But if history has taught us anything, its better to be on the side of American innovation, competition and most importantly the freedom to build a better future for all of us.”
But other committee Republicans proceeded to raise grave concerns about Libras potential impact, pressing Zuckerberg on fears about damage to the U.S. dollar and grilling him on why Facebook was losing marquee corporate partners such as Visa and eBay that had initially signed up to back Libra.
Some voiced other grievances with Facebooks influence.
Rep. Bill Posey (R-Fla.) put Zuckerberg on the spot about Facebooks decision to limit the reach of false claims that vaccines are dangerous, arguing that the move restricted free speech rights. Posey pressed Zuckerberg on whether Facebook could “support users fair and open discussions and communications related to the risks as well as the benefits of vaccinations.”
“Youre making a bad mistake,” Posey warned.
Zuckerberg was more confident this time, but lawmakers were more hostile
The last time he testified on Capitol Hill, an apologetic Zuckerberg came under fire from lawmakers who sought to take him to task for Facebooks handling of 2016 election interference and the Cambridge Analytica privacy scandal — but who were also stymied at times by confusion over the world of high technology.
A year and a half later, House lawmakers on Wednesday appeared to mostly speak with a firmer grasp on tech as they aired grievances with the CEO, whose companys regulatory woes have only multiplied since April 2018. But a more confident Zuckerberg appeared better prepared to take the heat, fielding questions on everything from financial regulation to content moderation to concerns over Facebooks growing power and size.
The improved performance comes as the CEO has taken a more public role in addressing regulatory concerns about the company. Zuckerberg dialed up his direct outreach to top officials in Congress and at the White House with a series of closed-door meetings in September. Hes also quietly huddled away from Washington in recent months with Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), sessions that touched on their concerns about Libra and data privacy, according to the lawmakers.
Even so, Zuckerberg acknowledged Wednesday that lawmakers might still hold reservations about Facebooks latest plans on Libra, given the heavy scrutiny the company is under.
“I believe that this is something that needs to get built, but I get that Im not the ideal messenger for this right now,” Zuckerberg said in his opening remarks. “Weve faced a lot of issues over the past few years and Im sure there are a lot of people who wish it were anyone but Facebook who were helping to propose this.”
Some questions seemed to catch Zuckerberg more flat-footed. He said he did not know whether Facebook has ever done business with President Donald Trumps D.C. hotel, a question posed by Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Pa.). And he had no ready answers for a series of rapid-fire questions from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), including one about a recent POLITICO story revealing that he has hosted off-the-record dinners with conservative pundits and journalists.
“In your ongoing dinner parties with far-right figures, some of who advanced the conspiracy theory that white supremacy is a hoax, did you discuss so-called social media bias against conservatives and do you believe there is a bias?” Ocasio-Cortez asked.
“Congresswoman — sorry, I dont remember everything that was in the question,” Zuckerberg responded.
She said: “Thats all right. Ill move on.”
Libra faces more alarm bells than ever
The hearing raised further doubts that Facebook and its partners would be able to launch Libra next year as planned. Opponents notched a victory when they pushed Zuckerberg to commit to walking away from the project if need beRead More – Source