WASHINGTON, DC – This week, I had the amazing opportunity to sit in on Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony to the United States House Committee on Energy and Commerce. Sitting just a few feet away, I watched Zuckerberg answer a variety of questions from Representatives about both his company and the industry as a whole. Zuckerberg’s testimonies promise to have a long-lasting impact on the relationship between the government and the tech industry, and the privacy of every Facebook user around the world.
At approximately 4:45 a.m. on Wednesday, April 11th, my phone alarm rang. Then it rang again every 15 minutes, until I finally had the energy to wake up at 5:30 a.m. and shut the noise off.
I quickly changed, grabbed some snacks, and shortly after I found myself on a metro to Capitol Hill. By the time I got there, I found a growing line of people waiting outside the Longworth House Office Building, all waiting for the same thing: to watch Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testify in front of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
As a current intern on Capitol Hill and student at Georgetown University, I had been surrounded by news regarding Zuckerberg’s upcoming testimony to the U.S. Congress, and the overarching contentious issue of data and privacy. This conversation was ignited nationwide after the 2016 presidential election and the threat of Russian bots, and the Cambridge Analytica scandal only added fuel to the flame.
The building opened at 7 a.m., and as we went through security-check, I silently counted and re-counted the number of people in front me, trying to guess my odds of being allowed into the hearing room with limited public seats.
Since the meeting was due to start at 10 a.m., I brought three hours of finance and philosophy homework (grades come first, right parents?). However, either side of me stood a data privacy law student and a machine learning engineer, so we all quickly fell into debate as to the ethics of data and artificial intelligence, and what Facebook needed to change (if anything).
At around 9:40 a.m., I received my line number and was told that I would be allowed into the room. The atmosphere around me suddenly became much more lively. News cameras began rolling as anchors reported to their channels; Capitol Hill staffers started to congregate around the hearing room entrance, and those in the public line began anxiously pacing; all waiting for the man of the hour.
By 9:55 a.m., everyone was seated in the room. Right on time, Zuckerberg walked in and took his seat. Cameras began clicking ferociously. The public became suddenly attentive. Even some Congressmen and women seemed giddy with excitement. The show had begun.
For the next five hours, with two short ten-minute breaks, Mark Zuckerberg took questions from over 30 members of Congress, and answered them with poise and grace. There were moments of confusion, where he seemed (or was stumped), but Zuckerberg never broke character. I had only ever seen pictures of Zuckerberg in a shirt and hoodie, not a suit or tie, so both I and other members of the audience were impressed by his ability to adapt to a setting that can be described as anything but his home turf. Sitting six feet away from him and with a clear view, I was mesmerized.
It became clear to us in the audience what Zuckerberg was there to do. His mission here was to settle the concerns the public or the government could have with his company or his business model. Zuckerberg skillfully dodged any questions asking him to change his business model, or promise data privacy from the on-set. Was he perfect in his responses? No. There were countless times where he had to admit he did not know the details of a situation, or promise to get back to the committee with more information. But he did well to ensure the Representatives that he was keenly aware of the main issues and working towards improving them.
What impressed me and other audience members about this testimony was the refreshing nature of both sides to actually discuss. Those who know anything about American politics in the past decade can attest to the fact that political debate often gets entrenched in rhetoric, as both sides fear the danger of leaving their safe zone. However, Zuckerberg was (or at least seemed) willing to accept some level of regulation. Furthermore, members of Congress admitted that they left the meeting learning more than what they knew before. Here were some of their key learnings:
- Facebook does not sell data: Instead, Facebook takes the advertiser’s target audience into account, and then places the ad on their pages. It does not provide any identifying information about its users to advertisers.
- Cambridge Analytica did not directly hack Facebook data: Facebook often allows third-party apps to let users sign in using their Facebook account. These platforms then have access to certain portions of a user’s data. In this specific scenario, the quiz “thisisyourdigitallife,” allowed Cambridge Analytica to access this data. In response, Zuckerberg ensured the Representatives that Facebook will be reviewing all these third-party apps to ensure they would not do this again.
- Facebook is improving its AI tools to target hate speech and fake news: Many Congress people brought up certain examples of Facebook determining certain innocuous content to be inappropriate, while disregarding other dangerous content (drug sales, fake news, terrorist pages, etc.) In response, Zuckerberg clarified that both his team of content analysts and his AI technology is improving in detecting what content should be appropriate.
- Users control their data (sort of): Zuckerberg clarified that once a user deletes their account, Facebook makes the full effort to delete their data. Users also have control over certain privacy settings, but Zuckerberg did not support the idea of initial full-privacy user settings. On an interesting note, Congressman Ben Luján probed Zuckerberg on their collection of data from non-users, and how those non-users could control their data, to which Zuckerberg did not have a response.
After 1 p.m., many of the Representatives started coming in and out for due to a vote on the House floor, so the atmosphere became less tense, but Zuckerberg retained his composure. By the time the hearing ended at 3 p.m., there was an audible exhale from Zuckerberg’s staff: their trial by fire had ended, and for better or worse, their boss came out largely unscathed and 3 billion dollars richer (Wall Street was clearly happy with Zuckerberg’s performance).
I hurriedly walked out right behind Zuckerberg; after all, he may be the CEO of one of the most ubiquitous companies in the world with a tight schedule but I am a college student that needed to get to his finance class on time.
As I walked out into the surprisingly bright March sun, I contemplated the consequences of what I witnessed. Perhaps no change will be made on either side. Perhaps regulations would make the tech industry more mature and accountable. Regardless of the next step, I was sure that I had been a part of history in the making.
(Siddharth Muchhal is a student at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service Class of 2021, and currently interns on Capitol Hill. He is a freelance journalist in Central Jersey, and is a reporter for the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs. Siddharth is from West Windsor, New Jersey, and is originally from Indore, Madhya Pradesh.)