5 key moments from Mark Zuckerberg’s latest Congress hearing

24 Oct 2019

Image: Antony Quintano/Flickr.

The House Financial Services Committee meeting to discuss the future of Facebook’s Libra project was about much more than cryptocurrency.

“It’s good to see you Mr Zuckerberg,” Represantative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez began, adjusting her microphone and stealing glances down at the table before her. “I think you of all people can appreciate using a person’s past behaviour in order to determine, predict or make decisions about future behaviour. In order for us to make decisions about Libra, I think we need to dig into your past behaviour, and Facebook’s past behaviour, with respect to our democracy.”

Ocasio-Cortez’s opening comments during the five minutes she was allocated to question Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg neatly summed up the sentiment of the entire hearing – that though the primary issue on the table was the fate of Facebook’s Libra cryptocurrency, in reality, it became an extended reflection on much of the social media company’s past and current controversies, considered in light of its ambitious future plans.

‘I actually don’t know if Libra is going to work’

Overall, the hearing demonstrated that suspicion of Facebook stretches across party lines; a bipartisan sense of exhaustion, if you will. Much of the hearing was characterised by politicians demanding yes-or-no answers from Zuckerberg, answers he was seldom willing to give in such simple terms.

Each politician, operating under relatively tight time constraints, was quick to cut the CEO off if it seemed like he was rambling, lest they risk him burning through their slot. The collective sense of impatience with his reticence was palpable.

The hearing lasted for almost six hours, with each committee member getting the opportunity to discuss the issues of their choosing. The broadness of the discussion reflected the sheer vastness of Facebook as a company. Here are some of the key moments.

‘Our financial leadership is not guaranteed’

Much of the coverage of the committee meeting may obscure the fact that it was originally convened to discuss Libra. Ultimately, that’s what it was about, and Zuckerberg’s opening statement reflected this.

He argued that there are more than a billion people worldwide, including 14m people in the US, without access to a bank account “but could through mobile phones if the right system existed”.

The founding mission of Libra is that sending money should be as secure “as sending a message”, Zuckerberg explained, going on to say that the currency will be “a global payments system fully backed by a reserve of cash and highly liquid assets”.

Zuckerberg conceded that he is “not the ideal messenger for that right now”, acknowledging the number of issues his company has faced in the past few years. He acknowledged that there are “important risks” that need to be addressed in the development of the payments system, such as financial stability, preventing terrorism and more.

However, in his mind, stalling could have disastrous consequences, allowing other nations to get ahead of the curve – namely, China, which the Facebook CEO claimed is due to launch a similar system in coming months.

“If America doesn’t innovate, our financial leadership is not guaranteed,” he said. “I actually don’t know if Libra is going to work, but I believe that it is important to try new things, so long as it is done responsibly.”

‘This is appalling and disgusting to me’

Ohio member of congress Joyce Beatty grilled Zuckerberg on matters pertaining to diversity and inclusion, touching on everything from targeted advertisements for housing on Facebook’s platform to the diversity of the companies that manage its assets.

When Zuckerberg struggled to succinctly answer factual questions, such as the number of diverse or women-owned law firms contracted by Facebook, Beatty questioned whether he had even reviewed materials sent to him containing details of all the topics due to be broached that day.

The more that the CEO failed to provide substantial answers to Beatty’s questions, the more frustrated Beatty became, suggesting that he had barely considered the issues at hand.

“And this is what’s so frustrating to me, it’s almost like you think it’s a joke, when you have ruined the lives of many people, discriminated against them,” Beatty said.

“I have a lot of questions that I’m going to send to you that I’m not going to be able to get through, and I would like an answer, because this is appalling and disgusting to me.”

‘Do you see a potential problem here?’

Ocasio-Cortez’s exchange with the CEO hit headlines, and for good reason, The frankness of her questions and the extent to which he wavered in response rendered it a standout exchange.

The most talked-about moment, however, was in regard to Facebook’s policy on political ads. Ocasio-Cortez asked: “Would I be able to run advertisements on Facebook targeting Republicans in primaries saying that they voted for the Green New Deal? If you’re not fact-checking political advertisements, I’m just trying to understand the bounds there.”

Zuckerberg claimed that he didn’t “know the answer off the top of [his] head”, eventually concluding: “I think probably.”

Zuckerberg noted earlier in the exchange that Facebook would intervene and remove content if a politician was inciting violence or attempting voter or census suppression. Yet the question of whether politicians can lie about their opponents, it seems, is less clear-cut.

“Do you see a potential problem here?” Ocasio-Cortez pressed him, to which Zuckerberg responded:

“Well congresswoman, I think lying is bad, and I think if you were to run an ad with a lie in it that would be bad … In a democracy, I believe people should be able to see for themselves what politicians are saying and judge their character for themselves.”

With the 2020 US election fast approaching, it is likely that this statement will continue to echo in the ears of constituents and candidates.

‘Nine minutes to cry in the stairwell’

Representative for California Katie Porter is a relative newcomer to Congress, having been in her position for 10 months, but that did not stop her making a mark on the proceedings.

Porter challenged Zuckerberg on the conditions that Facebook’s content moderators work under, including reports that moderators are allocated a portion of the day, nine minutes, for “supervised wellness”.

“That means nine minutes to cry in the stairwell while somebody watches them,” Porter added, before asking Zuckerberg himself whether he would be willing to work one hour a day for the next year acting as a content moderator.

When Zuckerberg began to argue that the community would not be well served by him dedicating that time, Porter asked if he was trying to say that he was not qualified to work as a content moderator. “No, congresswoman, that’s not what I’m saying,” Zuckerberg responded, with a smirk.

Porter concluded: “So, you’re saying you’re not willing to do it.”

‘Facebook has acquired too much power’

California representative Maxine Waters serves as the House Financial Services Committee chair, and so kicked off the entire proceeding. At the outset, she said that Zuckerberg had “opened up a serious discussion about whether Facebook should be broken up”, and these renewed calls were reiterated yet again towards the tail end of the hearing.

Representative Jesús García of Illinois said: “I think that Facebook has acquired too much power, it has become too big and we should seriously consider breaking it up.”

At this stage, calls to break up the company are hardly shocking – many people have echoed the sentiment and Facebook is in the midst of a Department of Justice investigation, along with a number of other major tech firms, precisely on that matter.

Yet Garcia’s comments proved unique, saying that Zuckerberg’s unwillingness to “give clear answers about which laws should apply to [his] project” is “concerning”. Garcia’s attitude seems to accord with Waters’ earlier claims that Zuckerberg feels he can operate “above the law”, bringing into question just how widespread this suspicion is within the US government.

Though Zuckerberg seems adamant that he will continue to push ahead with Libra, he ultimately conceded that the project is dead in the water if it fails to gain regulatory approval. Though this congressional hearing touched upon a broad array of issues, one element proved consistent: many US politicians are not convinced by his plans, which may not bode well for the future.

Mark Zuckerberg. Image: Anthony Quintano/Flickr.

Eva Short was a journalist at Silicon Republic