Mark Zuckerberg Battles Ted Cruz Over Bias, Agrees Facebook May Have to Be Regulated

Mark Zuckerberg Trial - One Time Use Only - Getty - H 2018
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"It's pretty much impossible, I believe, to start a company in your dorm room and then grow it to be at the scale we're at now without making some mistakes," Zuckerberg told U.S. senators on Day 1 of a two-day hearing.

In what began as something akin to a circus atmosphere, Mark Zuckerberg apologized at a U.S. Senate hearing Tuesday for not doing enough to prevent Facebook from becoming a conduit for "fake news" and allowing it to spread "hate speech" while being used by foreigners to interfere with the presidential election that elected Donald Trump.

Zuckerberg was dressed in a suit and blue tie and, at the start of the proceedings, sat stoically with dozens of news photographers, some mere inches from his face, feverishly snapping photos of him.

"It was my mistake, and I'm sorry," the Facebook founder and CEO said in his opening remarks. "I started Facebook, I run it, and I'm responsible for what happens here."

Zuckerberg boasted that Facebook is an "idealistic and optimistic" company that has helped to organize causes like #MeToo and March for Our Lives, but up until now he hasn't focused enough on making sure his company's tools are exclusively "used for good."

The hearing, which continues Wednesday in front of House members, was largely called to grill Zuckerberg about Cambridge Analytica, which inappropriately obtained data on millions of Facebook users in an effort to boost Trump's campaign. 

Zuckerberg reiterated that Cambridge Analytica has been booted from Facebook, as has the Internet Research Agency, a Russian outlet Zuckerberg says was responsible for a "disinformation campaign" surrounding the last presidential election. Facebook and its smaller asset, Instagram, accepted about $100,000 in advertising from IRA.

Zuckerberg spoke Tuesday to both the Senate Committee on the Judiciary and the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. "With all of the data exchanged over Facebook and other platforms, users deserve to know how their information is shared and secured," said Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, chairman of the former.

South Dakota Sen. John Thune, chairman of the latter, noted that it was very rare that a single CEO would address roughly half of the Senate during a single hearing. "America is listening, and quite possibly, the world," Thune, a Republican, said at the top of the hearing.

Thune said Facebook has a history of apologizing for mistakes and promising changes, then asked Zuckerberg why this time was any different.

"It's pretty much impossible, I believe, to start a company in your dorm room and then grow it to be at the scale we're at now without making some mistakes," the exec said. "Because our service is about helping people connect and information, those mistakes have been different."

Zuckerberg spoke of a "philosophical shift" as a company, from primarily "building tools" to taking a "more proactive role" in making sure the tools are "used for good."

Grassley, also a Republican, noted that "President Obama's campaign developed an app utilizing the same Facebook feature as Cambridge Analytica to capture the information of not just the app users but millions of their friends," though Zuckerberg didn't react to the assertion.

When one senator asked why Facebook's stated policies do not warn users of the privacy they might be sacrificing, Zuckerberg said: "Long privacy policies are very confusing, and if you make it long and spell out all the detail, then you're probably going to reduce the percent of people who read it."

Thune also asked Zuckerberg to define Facebook's idea of "hate speech," though the CEO was vague.

"We are developing AI tools that can identify certain classes of bad activity proactively and flag it for our team," he said. "By the end of this year, by the way, we're going to have 20,000 people working on security and content review."

Zuckerberg acknowledged that hate speech is a challenge for artificial intelligence, though, calling it "linguistically nuanced." 

"You need to understand what is a slur and whether something is hateful, and not just in English," he said, guessing that Facebook is five to 10 years from censoring hate speech exclusively via AI. On the other hand, AI has been very helpful in identifying ISIS and Al Qaeda propaganda, with 99 percent of it being taken down before anyone views it.

During some of the most tense moments, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) hammered Zuckerberg on whether "hate speech" amounts to anything posted on Facebook that liberals don't agree with. He noted that Facebook has "routinely suppressed" Glenn Beck, a Fox News reporter, Chick-fil-A, the Catholic church and pro-Trump groups, and asked if Facebook ever took down pages belonging to Planned Parenthood, or any Democrat running for office.

Zuckerberg acknowledged he wasn't aware of any such actions.

"Do you consider yourself a neutral public platform?" Cruz asked. The senator also asked the political affiliation of the people Facebook hires to determine whether something is "acceptable or deplorable," and Zuckerberg said those who do the hiring do not ask about politics.

"I think it is a fair concern," Zuckerberg said. "Facebook and the tech industry are located in the Silicon Valley, which is an extremely left-leaning place. This is actually a concern that I have and I try to root out in the company ... making sure that we don't have any bias in the work that we do."

Cruz even asked why Palmer Luckey, the Trump-supporting founder of Facebook's Oculus VR was fired, but Zuckerberg refused to talk about a personnel matter.

"That was pretty good," Zuckerberg said after his testy exchange with Cruz.

Dianne Feinstein, the Democratic senator from California, was the first to briefly broach the topic of "regulation," though the concept was revisited many times throughout the hearing.

"You don't think you have a monopoly?" asked South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican. "Do you as a company welcome regulation? Would you work with us in terms of what regulations you think are necessary in your industry?"

"Absolutely," answered Zuckerberg.

On the subject of privacy, observers snickered as Ilinois Sen. Dick Durbin asked: "Mr. Zuckerberg, would you be comfortable sharing with us the name of the hotel you stayed in last night?"

Zuckerberg smiled, paused, fidgeted in his seat, then loudly proclaimed: "No!"

"If you messaged anybody this week, would you share with us the names of the people you messaged?" asked Durbin, a Democrat.

"Senator, no, I would not choose to do that publicly here," answered Zuckerberg.

"I think that might be what this is all about," said the senator.

Other highlights of the sometimes wonky, sometimes compelling event, included Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska asking Zuckerberg if he worries about "social-media addiction" and Democratic Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts asking if a privacy Bill of Rights is needed for children using Facebook. Zuckerberg basically answered no to each, but acknowledged "there are good and bad uses" for social media.

"Forty percent of Americans under age 35 tell pollsters they think the First Amendment is dangerous because you might use your freedom to say something that hurts somebody else's feelings," Sasse told Zuckerberg, trying again to get the CEO to define hate speech. "Can you imagine a world where you might decide pro-lifers are prohibited from speaking about their abortion views on your platform?"

"I certainly would not want that to be the case," said Zuckerberg.

"I wouldn't want you to leave here today and think there's sort of a unified view in the Congress that you should be moving toward regulating more and more and more speech," Sasse said. "Adults need to engage in vigorous debate."

A senator also asked if anyone at Facebook has been interviewed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating whether there was Russian interference in the last presidential election. Zuckerberg said Mueller did talk to Facebook officials, but not to him directly. 

Revisiting privacy, Republican Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana told Zuckerberg, "Your user agreement sucks ... the purpose of that user agreement is to cover Facebook's rear end."

Zuckerberg noted that users have control over what data Facebook shares and added, "If we're not communicating this clearly, then that's a big thing we should work on."

"Here's what's going to happen," said Kennedy. "There's going to be a whole bunch of bills introduced to regulate Facebook. It's up to you whether we pass them."