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Politics

For Facebook, political pressure mounts on Mark Zuckerberg

The Cambridge Analytica scandal involving the misused data of 50 million people has led to increased calls for Facebook’s CEO to testify before Congress.

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Several senators have called for Mark Zuckerberg to speak about Facebook's political issues.

James Martin/CNET

Mark Zuckerberg's name is ringing across Capitol Hill again. Politicians are demanding that the Facebook co-founder and CEO testify to Congress in the wake of the social network's scandal involving a data firm affiliated with the Donald Trump campaign.

Facebook disclosed late Friday that researchers from UK-based Cambridge Analytica had duped the social networking giant and gained access to data from more than 50 million Facebook users through an app called "thisisyourdigitallife," which was then used for political ads during the 2016 presidential election.  

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Facebook said in a statement Friday that it had banned the group, but the political pressure on the massive social network is just beginning. By Monday morning, multiple senators were demanding that Zuckerberg testify before Congress.

An appearance from Zuckerberg could potentially offer answers at a time when Facebook has gotten into hot water over its involvement with the distribution of Russia-made ads and posts on its network. But it's unclear whether it'll happen. 

While the government has summoned Facebook multiple times, the CEO has never testified on these issues. In the past, Facebook has sent its general counsel Colin Stretch; Monika Bickert, its head of global policy management; and other executives not named Mark Zuckerberg.

'They need to take responsibility'

But the call for Facebook's CEO continues to rise. On Saturday, Sen. Amy Klobuchar tweeted that "Mark Zuckerberg needs to testify before the Senate Judiciary."

The Minnesota Democrat added to her demand on Monday morning, telling NPR's Morning Edition that Zuckerberg needs to speak for Facebook's flaws.

"They have not come before us, they've given it to their lobbyists and their lawyers, and we think that they need to take responsibility for what's going on," Klobuchar said. "I don't know why this CEO, even though he's super famous and has made a lot of money, why he also doesn't have to come before the committee."  

She pointed out that multiple CEOs have testified to Congress in the past, and said the chances of Zuckerberg appearing increase if more politicians call for it. 

Responding to a request for comment, Facebook didn't address whether Zuckerberg would be willing to testify before Congress. 

"We are in the process of conducting a comprehensive internal and external review as we work to determine the accuracy of the claims that the Facebook data in question still exists," said Paul Grewal, Facebook vice president and deputy general counsel. "That is where our focus lies as we remain committed to vigorously enforcing our policies to protect people's information." 

Klobuchar isn't the only one speaking out. The Federal Election Commission on Monday also called for Zuckerberg, as well as Larry Page, CEO of Google parent Alphabet, and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to testify at a public hearing set for June 27.

"Your perspective would be of great value to the Commission and to the nation," Ellen Weintraub, the FEC's vice chair, said in her letter to Zuckerberg.

In a joint letter with Klobuchar, Sen. John Kennedy, a Republican from Louisiana, has also called for Zuckerberg to testify before Congress, and asked Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, to call for a hearing.

"While this Committee's Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism convened a hearing with witnesses representing Facebook, Twitter, and Google in October of 2017, we have yet to hear from the leaders of these companies directly," Kennedy and Klobuchar wrote.

The letter also asks that the CEOs from Google and Twitter testify. 

In response to the letter from Klobuchar and Kennedy, a spokeswoman for Grassley said the senator's taking the request under consideration: "At this point, no decision has been made on whether to hold such a hearing or whether it would occur at the full committee or subcommittee level."

Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia, made a similar request on Thursday, before news of the scandal came out. The vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee told Bloomberg "the CEOs owe an obligation."  

Weaponizing psychological profiles

On Tuesday, Warner formally addressed Zuckerberg, writing that Facebook owes the public an explanation.

"It's time for Mr. Zuckerberg and the other CEOs to testify before Congress. The American people deserve answers about social media manipulation in the 2016 election," Warner said in a tweet.

Cambridge Analytica released a statement Monday morning calling the claims against its company "false allegations."

On Monday, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), wrote a letter to Zuckerberg, asking for the CEO to explain how Facebook's data was abused by Cambridge Analytica.

"With little oversight -- and no meaningful intervention from Facebook -- Cambridge Analytica was able to use Facebook-developed and marketed tools to weaponize detailed psychological profiles against tens of millions of Americans," Wyden wrote in his letter.

Several senators have added their requests for Zuckerberg to head to Washington, DC, including Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut. 

"Mark Zuckerberg needs to testify under oath in public before the Judiciary Committee. He owes it to the American people who ought to be deeply disappointed by the conflicting and disparate explanations that have been offered," he told reporters on Monday. Blumenthal added that Zuckerberg should be subpoenaed to appear if he won't come on his own. 

Sens. John Thune (R-SD), Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) signed a joint letter on Monday as well, demanding a response from Zuckerberg by March 29. 

Rep. Adam Schiff, a Democrat from California on the House Intelligence Committee, called for Cambridge Analytica, as well as Facebook and Zuckerberg, to testify to Congress. 

"I think it would be beneficial to have him come testify before the appropriate oversight committees," he told The Washington Post.

The pressure isn't just coming from DC. The European Union has also launched an investigation into Cambridge Analytica and Facebook, according to a statement from Antonio Tajani, the European Parliament president.  

In the UK, Damian Collins, the chair of Parliament's Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, on Tuesday sent a letter to Zuckerberg to request that he make an appearance to provide "oral evidence" about Facebook's handling of user data.

"It is now time to hear from a senior Facebook executive with sufficient authority to give an accurate account of this catastrophic failure of process," Collins wrote. "Given your commitment at the start of the New Year to 'fixing' Facebook, I hope that this representative will be you."

First published March 19 at 9:28 a.m. PT. 
Update, 10:35 a.m. PT
: Adds a letter from Sen. Ron Wyden.
Update, 11:40 a.m. PT: Adds comment from Facebook.
Update, 12:22 p.m. Adds a response from Cambridge Analytica.
Update, 12:40 p.m. PT
: Adds a comment from a spokeswoman for Grassley,
Update, March 20 at 6:38 a.m. PT
: Adds new statements from Sen. Mark Warner and UK member of Parliament Damian Collins.
Update, March 20 at 7:37 a.m. PT: Adds statements from four senators.

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