Zuckerberg takes Facebook data apology tour to Washington

The creator of the world’s largest social network is testifying at two congressional hearings this week. The crux: Can we trust Facebook?

Ian Sherr Contributor and Former Editor at Large / News
Ian Sherr (he/him/his) grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, so he's always had a connection to the tech world. As an editor at large at CNET, he wrote about Apple, Microsoft, VR, video games and internet troubles. Aside from writing, he tinkers with tech at home, is a longtime fencer -- the kind with swords -- and began woodworking during the pandemic.
Ian Sherr
8 min read

Mark Zuckerberg's lived his adult life spreading the gospel of Facebook : "Bringing the world closer together."

And in the 14 years since Facebook was founded, he's largely succeeded. More than 2 billion people use his service each month, making it the biggest social media network on the planet. It's the largest photo site on the web. It's now home to powerful social movements, an outlet for political dissidents and, yes, the place where you share baby photos and what you had for lunch. Most of us know more people who use Facebook than those who don't.

But the cheery optimism that helped Facebook become one of the most powerful companies in the world left it vulnerable to being co-opted by bad actors and twisted into a tool for mass harassment, for spreading propaganda and, most recently, for mass theft of our personal information by a data consultancy that works to influence elections.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in front of a projection reading "People First"
Enlarge Image
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in front of a projection reading "People First"

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is scheduled to testify before Congress this week about the widening Cambridge Analytica scandal.

James Martin/CNET

"For the first decade, we really focused on all the good that connecting people brings," a contrite Zuckerberg said in a rare media call last week. "But it's clear now that we didn't do enough. We didn't focus enough on preventing abuse and thinking through how people could use these tools to do harm as well. That goes for fake news, foreign interference in elections, hate speech. ... We didn't take a broad enough view of what our responsibility is, and that was a huge mistake. It was my mistake. But it's clear now that we didn't do enough."

He's not the only one who thinks so.

The 33-year-old multibillionaire is heading to Washington to answer questions from Congress about how Facebook was blindsided on so many fronts and what he's going to do to ensure users' data isn't misused again. His testimony, before a joint hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee and Senate Commerce Committee on Tuesday and then before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday, is likely to be one of the biggest spectacles of the year.

And that's not just because lawmakers have everything to gain by spending two days grandstanding at the expense of the tech industry's boy wonder. At stake could be the way Washington treats, as in regulates, the entire industry.

"Advertisers are queasy, influential users are critical, there's been a global avalanche of bad press, and now that the company has to open its eyes after years of not doing much, he's finding they're truly in a mess," said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the privacy advocacy group Center for Digital Democracy. "He has to do a Herculean effort to apologize and reassure people he's making meaningful changes."

For decades, lawmakers and government regulators have treated Facebook and other Silicon Valley companies like favored children. The tech industry created jobs and unimaginable wealth, and it routinely upended the way we live our lives. Tech companies together make up the third largest economic force in the world, behind the US and China, according to one study from business software maker Apptio.

All those entrepreneurs -- Bill Gates, Steve Jobs , Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Zuckerberg -- weren't just writing code or selling gadgets , and they weren't mere celebrity CEOs. They were the human embodiment of the American dream.

Zuckerberg will no doubt remind lawmakers that Facebook inspired world-changing social movements, connected billions of people with friends and family around the globe, and evolved into a town square for the digital age. But he'll also acknowledge, as he's said over and again in the past two weeks, that social media has become a shockingly effective tool for spreading propaganda and undermining public trust. All the while, he and his team didn't anticipate the threats to our private information and the theft of our user data.

"With all of the data exchanged over Facebook and other platforms, users deserve to know how their information is shared and secured," Chuck Grassley, the Republican chairman of the US Senate's Committee on the Judiciary chairman, said in a statement.

A Facebook spokesman declined to comment beyond Zuckerberg's earlier statements. The hearings will be carried live on television and streamed over the web.

Testimony and consequences


Zuckerberg called the Cambridge Analytica data scandal a "a major breach of trust" during an interview with CNN a few days after the news broke.


Over the better part of the past month, the data leak of up to 87 million people's Facebook profile information to a UK-based political consultancy called Cambridge Analytica has spiraled into the biggest scandal Zuckerberg has ever faced. As we learned more about what happened -- an initial estimate was 50 million users affected --  new questions have been raised about Facebook and also the people who worked with Cambridge Analytica, including Donald Trump's former chief strategist Steve Bannon, and Trump's early presidential campaign.

In the three weeks since the Cambridge Analytica news broke, Team Zuck has been playing catchup. The social media giant announced new privacy settings and a clearer privacy policy and said it's auditing the thousands of apps on its site to make sure it knows how data is being collected. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg said the company on Monday will start notifying every one of the 87 million users whose information may have been compromised and given to Cambridge Analytica.

And a few days before Zuckerberg's scheduled appearance before the committees in Washington, Facebook banned another political data analytics firm called AggregateIQ, which has been linked to the successful Brexit vote to have the UK leave the European Union.

All those efforts don't seem to have done much to bolster the confidence of Facebook users in the US. In a poll by CBS News (a corporate sibling of CNET), respondents largely said that the company's response to the scandal has been unacceptable and that they also seriously doubt Facebook can protect them in future.

Zuckerberg's made clear he knows what he's got to discuss with Congress. He summed it up with reporters last week: "Two of the most basic questions that I think people are asking about Facebook are: first, can we get our systems under control and can we keep people safe, and second, can we make sure that our systems aren't used to undermine democracy?"

Just how hot a seat will he be sitting in?

On the one hand, testifying before congressional committees is a rite of passage in the business world. CEOs from across industries have been hauled before legislators to be read the riot act on nationalTV. It happened to auto industry executives as they faced bankruptcy. It happened to the heads of major banks after scandals involving fraud, mismanagement and the irresponsible activity that led to the biggest financial meltdown in generations. It happened to Hewlett-Packard after it spied on reporters. And it caught CEO Tim Cook after Apple was accused of dodging taxes.

But on the other hand, testifying carries significant danger. A misstep could lead Congress to write new rules making business tougher.

Zuckerberg has signaled he's open to some regulation, throwing support behind a proposed bill reforming online political advertising called the Honest Ads Act. "Election interference is a problem that's bigger than any one platform," he said when announcing his support Friday.

European countries are already planning to implement the General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR, which promises users that companies will use stricter privacy standards in addition to giving them more access and control over their personal data.  Zuckerberg said he plans to follow the GDPR when it goes into effect next month.  


People used to wonder whether Zuckerberg might be preparing to run for president. Not so much anymore.


Lion's den or eating out of his hands?

Zuckerberg's turn on Capitol Hill marks a dramatic fall from popularity. Just last year, he embarked on nationwide tour, promising to visit every state in the US to learn more about how people "are living, working and thinking about the future."

As the year progressed, Zuckerberg released photos of himself doing stuff like helping out at a farm and working on a car assembly line. People began to wonder whether he might be preparing to run for elected office -- even president -- someday.

A skit on Saturday Night Live this weekend showed how far his star has fallen. The weekly comedy program dispatched one of its comedians to do an imitation, skewering Zuckerberg's public persona and the many times he's apologized for scandals over the years.

"Tonight, I'd like to apologize to all 87 million of you, one by one," said the parody Zuckerberg, clad in the billionaire's trademark grey T-shirt. "I'm sorry, Ethan Cooperbird, of Van Nuys, California, for disclosing that you frequently visit your ex-girlfriend's photo album, titled 'Cancun 2010;' especially one photo for an average of 2.3 minutes."

Apple CEO Tim Cook at a congressional hearing

Tim Cook's successful testimony to Congress in 2013 was seen as a win for Apple and the tech industry.

Getty Images

As the real Zuckerberg prepares his testimony, he might want to take a page from others who've testified before him.

When Apple's Cook spoke on Capitol Hill in 2013 to defend Apple's tax behavior, he successfully turned opinions of once-fiery senators who'd slammed the iPhone maker for avoiding billions of dollars in taxes.

Sen. John McCain first criticized Apple as "among America's largest tax avoiders," but changed his tune toward Cook to, "You managed to change the world, which is an incredible legacy for Apple."

Cook and Zuckerberg have different management styles, though.

While both guard their privacy, Cook has embraced the spotlight as head of one of the world's largest and most profitable companies, even using his position to lobby legislators on social issues that he and his employees care about. In contrast, Mark -- as he's commonly referred to inside Facebook -- comes off as uncomfortable in the public eye, largely choosing to post statements on his Facebook profile.

Zuckerberg told CNN in an interview last month he prefers not to do media interviews. If that's how he approaches his testimony, it's going to go badly, said Paul Argenti, a professor of corporate communications at Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business. Since people still see Zuckerberg as the 22-year-old CEO-in-a-hoodie, Facebook's chief needs to take the opportunity to make a statement about what his company stands for and build up his credibility.

"He has to shoot for something more serious," Argenti said. "He needs to show he's a grownup and can go toe to toe against the big boys."

Not everyone's convinced he'll succeed.

The SNL skit on Saturday made a nod toward Zuckerberg's perception problem. "Sure, maybe Facebook sold out our democracy to Russian troll farms. My bad?" the parody-Zuckerberg said with a snarky shrug. "Unlike my facial expression, Facebook is going to change."

Part of Zuckerberg's problem is that his discomfort with public speaking makes what he's saying seem inauthentic, said Creative Strategies analyst Carolina Milanesi.

And though he's been speaking in public more often, holding livestreams to answer user questions and hosting that press conference over the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the problem persists.

"The only time during the CNN interview that he got emotional was when he talked about his daughters; that's the first time he was at a loss for words," Milanesi added. "I didn't see any of that passion for Facebook -- his platform, his first baby." 

Originally published April 9 at 5:00 a.m. PT.
Updated April 10 at 6:33 a.m. PT:  Added information about a poll of Americans on Facebook's handing of user data.

Cambridge Analytica: Everything you need to know about Facebook's data mining scandal.

iHate: CNET looks at how intolerance is taking over the internet.