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Mark Zuckerberg was confronted Wednesday by lawmakers scoffing at his apologies over lapses in protecting user privacy and pledges to do better, with one member asking, “Who’s going to protect us from Facebook?”
The question by Representative Janice Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat, was echoed by members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee from both parties as the founder of Facebook Inc. was questioned on Capitol Hill for a second consecutive day.
Representative Greg Walden of Oregon, the House panel’s Republican chairman, said Zuckerberg needed to account for “alarming reports of breaches of trust between your company -- one of the biggest and most powerful in the world -- and its users.”
While the criticism was bipartisan, members of the Democratic minority were more assertive in saying expanded government regulation is the answer.
Representative Mike Doyle, a Pennsylvania Democrat, said, “The only way we’re going to close this trust gap is through legislation that creates and empowers a sufficiently resourced expert oversight agency with rule-making authority to protect the digital privacy and ensure our companies protect their users’ data.”
But Representative Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican, said regulation “could create a harmful barrier to entry for some startups, particularly ones that might want to compete with you.”
Zuckerberg’s trip to Washington came after weeks of damaging reports about the social network’s data practices. Information from as many as 87 million users was siphoned to Cambridge Analytica, a British firm with ties to President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign. In addition, Russian operatives used bogus accounts in an effort to sow discord and shape voter opinion during the campaign.
A QuickTake: Understanding the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica Story
Zuckerberg maintained a matter-of-fact demeanor even as some members openly questioned his sincerity and honesty. Among questions fired at Zuckerberg -- who revealed that his own Facebook data was sold to malicious parties -- and his responses:
-- Democratic Representative Frank Pallone of New Jersey asked for a yes-or-no answer on whether he’d commit to changing default settings to minimize the collection of users’ data. Zuckerberg demurred, saying, “This is a complex issue that I think deserves more than a one-word answer.” The lawmaker called that answer disappointing.
-- Republicans suggested repeatedly that Facebook was biased against conservatives, which Zuckerberg denied. Representative Joe Barton, a Texas Republican, pulled out his phone and read a constituent’s question about Facebook silencing conservative commentators known as Diamond & Silk. Zuckerberg called that an “an enforcement error” that’s been resolved.
-- Walden pressed Zuckerberg on whether Facebook is a media company or a financial institution, categories that have traditionally faced federal regulation. He replied that it’s “a technology company, because the primary thing we do is have engineers that write code and build products.”
-- Facebook will offer users worldwide the privacy options demanded by European countries in a regulation taking effect in May, Zuckerberg told Representative Gene Green, a Texas Democrat. “All the same controls will be available around the world,” Zuckerberg said.
Zuckerberg met with a number of lawmakers ahead of the hearings, which began in the Senate on Tuesday, in what amounted to a charm offensive for the 33-year-old entrepreneur who started the world’s largest social network in a Harvard dorm room.
Investors were reassured by Zuckerberg’s performance on Tuesday. Facebook shares jumped as Zuckerberg spoke to the senators, closing up 4.5 percent in New York trading. Facebook rose less than 1 percent Wednesday as Zuckerberg was questioned by the House panel.
At the Senate hearing, Zuckerberg had said he was willing to consider new restrictions, and agreed to send suggestions to Congress. Senators signaled they may move to rein in Facebook, which has thrived as part of an online industry that’s largely escaped regulation.
"Your user agreement sucks,” Senator John Kennedy, a Louisiana Republican, told Zuckerberg. “I don’t want to vote to have to regulate Facebook, but by God I will.”
Facebook has disclosed that posts from a Russian company known for pushing Kremlin propaganda had reached the news feeds of 126 million users.