What Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg did and didn't answer

Last week, we came up with six questions for Zuckerberg as he prepared to testify before Congress about data privacy. Here's how Facebook's CEO fared.

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Richard Nieva
8 min read
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg Testifies At House Hearing

Mark Zuckerberg answered a lot of questions over the past two days. But there are some he didn't.

Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Mark Zuckerberg's apology tour reached a crescendo this week when he went to Washington to testify before two congressional panels. His first appearance, on Tuesday, was with the Senate Judiciary and Commerce committees. The following day, Zuckerberg faced the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

His goal: to reassure legislators, investors and users of the world's largest social network that Facebook's CEO had a handle on issues related to data privacy, fake news and foreign election tampering. The tour came after a scandal erupted last month involving Cambridge Analytica, a digital consultancy that improperly used data from 87 million user accounts without permission to help its clients sway public sentiment -- including reportedly working on behalf of the Donald Trump campaign in the 2016 presidential election.

Watch this: Seven of our favorite moments from Zuck's congressional testimony

The scandal raised questions about Facebook's handling of personal information for its 2.2 billion users -- and whether the social network can be trusted to protect all that data. The morality of Facebook's business model even came into question: it's an ad-supported site, which means it makes its money by targeting ads based on what it knows about its users.  

Congress was eager to get  Zuckerberg on the hot seat, for the chance to interrogate the 33-year-old billionaire on everything from data privacy to election integrity, and to get his take on whether it was time for the tech company to abide by new regulations.

Over almost 10 hours of combined hearings, Zuckerberg endured a skewering. He was asked -- and declined to answer -- what hotel he stayed in. The question, by Sen. Dick Durbin, was meant to drive home the point of individual privacy. Zuckerberg admitted he was among the up to 87 million people who had their data exploited by Cambridge Analytica. And over and over again, he apologized for Facebook's transgressions, promising the company would take a "broader view of its responsibilities."

Zuckerberg, trading in his trademark T-shirts and jeans for a suit and tie, also took the blame for all the negativity surrounding Facebook. His oft-repeated refrain: "I started Facebook, I run it, and I'm responsible for what happens here."

He answered a lot of questions, but were they enough to give people the explanations they deserve? Days before the hearings, we posed six questions for Zuckerberg, hoping he'd answer them during the grilling from Congress. 

Let's revisit them and see what he actually answered.

1. Why should Facebook users keep trusting and believing you when it comes to privacy?
Part of Facebook's "breach of trust," as Zuckerberg called it, was that the company knew about Cambridge Analytica's violations three years ago, but it didn't disclose them to the public until The New York Times and The Guardian were set to run stories. So the question of Facebook's ability to be forthright about data misuse is reasonable.

On Tuesday, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota, asked Zuckerberg if he'd be willing to support legislation that would require him to notify users of a breach within 72 hours. Usually, when Zuckerberg was asked to support legislation, he dodged the question by saying "The details matter" and offered to follow up later. But in this case, Zuckerberg answered, "Senator, that makes sense to me." (Then he offered to follow up later.)

But when it comes to privacy, Zuckerberg's policies might not be enough. While he was testifying on Tuesday, a block away at the Capitol Building, protesters shouted, "Zuckerberg, you're absurd!" and "The internet is getting dark, and we owe it all to Mark!"

The organizer of the protest, Daniel Taylor, said the campaign was called #DeleteFacebook, for the hashtag that began trending on Twitter with the onset of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Facebook's biggest problem is transparency, Taylor said. "They knew for three years [about Cambridge Analytica]. They had to get caught. Honestly, I'm not sure they could gain back our trust."

2. Is Facebook just too big and complicated for you and your team to manage?
Zuckerberg was asked a form of this question several times. He repeatedly relied on the answer that because there's so much content generated by over 2 billion people a month, Facebook is investing in artificial intelligence technology to help police what's posted on the network. But Zuckerberg has said it will take years for AI to become dependable enough to do that. In the meantime, Facebook plans to double the number of people working on security and content moderation to 20,000 in 2018 from 10,000 last year.

But on Wednesday, Zuckerberg said even all those people wouldn't be enough to patrol a site as large as Facebook.

Rep. David McKinley, a Republican from West Virginia, brought up illegal opioid listings on Facebook and asked Zuckerberg why the social network hadn't taken down the listings. 

"Respectfully, when there are tens of billions or 100 billion pieces of content that are shared every day, even 20,000 people reviewing it can't look at everything," Zuckerberg replied. "What we need to do is build more AI tools that can proactively find that content."

McKinley doubled down on the urgency of fixing the problem.

"You said before you were going to take them down, and you haven't," McKinley said. "They're still up."

3. You've said it will take "years" to fix Facebook. Can we wait that long?
Zuckerberg previously said fixing Facebook would take years, even though he wishes he could "snap his fingers" and it would be done. In their questions, lawmakers mostly dug into nitty-gritty details, rather than big-picture master plans or phases of his plan.

4. You've tossed around the idea of an independent "Supreme Court" for Facebook to settle disputes about acceptable speech and content. What would that look like?
Zuckerberg wasn't specifically asked about this, and he didn't mention it.

5. How's the fact-checking effort going?
Zuckerberg only explicitly mentioned fact-checking of stories shared on the site once at each hearing. The first time was in response to a question from Sen. Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona, who asked about accusations Facebook is helping to fuel genocide in Myanmar. He said part of their efforts in that country is fact-checking content.

At the House hearing, Rep. Morgan Griffith, a Republican from Virginia, asked how Facebook characterizes misinformation. Zuckerberg mentioned fact checkers as part of that process.

There's a notion that Facebook's fact-checking efforts might be in disarray, which stems from a report by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism that said Facebook's fact-checking partners want more transparency. In their report, fact checkers said they found out through a leaked email that their efforts could reduce a fake story's visibility on Facebook by 80 percent. But the fact checkers were leery of that figure and said they had no evidence to back it up.

Since the report, Facebook's confirmed the 80 percent figure, but still hasn't provided a methodology. Zuckerberg didn't provide any more context in his hearings.  

6. Big tech companies -- Facebook, Google and Twitter -- have said they work together when it comes to security and data protection. Specifically, how has Facebook worked with other companies?
Zuckerberg didn't talk about working with Google or Twitter on security.

He did talk about working with other big tech companies, though. G.K. Butterfield, a Democrat from North Carolina and member of the Congressional Black Caucus, asked how the industry could work together to promote more diversity in tech. He proposed a meeting of the big-tech CEOs to lay out a strategy.

"I think that that's a good idea, and we should follow up on it," Zuckerberg said. "From the conversations that I have with my fellow leaders in the tech industry, I know that this something that we all understand that the whole industry is behind on."

But wait, there's more

In addition to those questions, there are others Zuckerberg wasn't asked -- or that he dodged. Here are four of them. We brought these issues up to Facebook, but the company didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

1. Could Facebook change its business model?
Facebook's massive trove of user data is the reason it's a $480 billion company. Last year, the social network made about $40 billion in ad revenue.

That user data is also the reason Facebook's under such scrutiny now. Facebook hinted at possibly introducing a paid version of the service that would presumably not be ad-supported, but Zuckerberg said, "There will always be a version of Facebook that is free."

Still, Rep. Anna Eshoo, a Democrat from California, asked point blank, "Are you willing to change your business model in the interest of protecting individual privacy?"

Zuckerberg replied, "Congresswoman, I'm not sure what that means." The two agreed to follow up.

2. What about that whistleblower?
Out of everything discussed, there was one notable name that wasn't mentioned during the hearings, either by Zuckerberg or the lawmakers: Christopher Wylie.

Wylie is the whole reason Facebook is in this firestorm. If the former Cambridge Analytica consultant hadn't leaked the story, it's unlikely Facebook would have disclosed anything about its users' data getting out into the world.

Vote Leave Whistle Blowers Hold Press Conference

Christopher Wylie, a data scientist, leaked details about Cambridge Analytica to The New York Times and The Guardian.

Dan Kitwood / Getty Images

Wylie said during a Q&A last month that he legitimately doesn't understand why the social network is, in his opinion, trying to frame the story against him. "I'm actually really confused by Facebook. I don't really understand what their play is right now," he said. "They make me out to be this suspect, or some kind of nefarious person."

Zuckerberg didn't give him any answers this week.

3. Is it really OK that Facebook can track you online even when you're not logged in?
Sen. Roger Wicker, a Republican from Mississippi, asked Zuckerberg about reports that Facebook can track a user's browser history when they're not signed into the network.

It's true. That's actually one of the most powerful things about Facebook's "Like" button. It's not just for baby photos. When you visit a site that has Like buttons -- shopping pages or articles, for example -- Facebook gets data on when you visited the page, as well as "browser-related" information, according to Facebook's help center. This happens even if you're not logged into Facebook -- though if you are logged in, Facebook will get more of your info, the company says.

Facebook also has something called "Pixel" to measure how effective ads are, by giving Facebook information on when you visited certain sites and took specific actions, like buying something.

But when he was asked by Wicker, Zuckerberg appeared uncomfortable. "I want to make sure I get this accurate so it would probably be better to have my team follow up afterwards," he said.

4. Where does Facebook stand on privacy regulation?
Zuckerberg got multiple questions about making data collection an opt-in choice. But he was also pressed about the privacy of minors (the youngest age to create a Facebook account is 13, according to the company's rules).

Sen. Edward Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, brought up a piece of legislation he's working on that would introduce a children's online privacy "bill of rights." It would require parental consent before Facebook data on anyone under 16 could be "reused for any other purpose other than that which was originally intended."

Zuckerberg said he agreed "as a general principle," but wouldn't commit to supporting the legislation. "I don't know if we need a law," he said.

Do you have questions you wish Zuckerberg would have answered? Let's hear them.

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

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