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Mark Zuckerberg faces sceptical Capitol with panache

Zuckerberg's appearance, his first before Congress, turned into something of a pointed gripe session

Kevin Roose & Cecilia Kang | NYT  |  Washington 

Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg

Outside the Capitol Building on Tuesday sat dozens of cardboard cutouts depicting Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Facebook, wearing a characteristic T-shirt emblazoned with the message “Fix Fakebook.”

Inside, clad in a navy suit and bright blue tie, Zuckerberg appeared before the Senate Commerce and Judiciary committees as he really is: The billionaire leader of one of the world’s most powerful commercial and civic enterprises.

Zuckerberg’s appearance, his first before Congress, turned into something of a pointed gripe session, with both Democratic and Republican senators attacking for failing to protect users’ data and stop Russian election interference, and raising questions about whether should be more heavily regulated. Of specific interest were the revelations that sensitive data of as many as 87 million users were harvested without explicit permission by a political consulting firm, Cambridge Analytica, which was connected to the Trump campaign.

Zuckerberg, 33, appeared confident and answered questions directly, and his performance helped bolster Facebook’s stock, which ended the day up 4.5 per cent. It was the first of two marathon hearings; the second will be before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday.

He was forced to admit mistakes and take responsibility for his company’s actions — as have the many tobacco, pharmaceutical and bank executives who have been summoned to Washington.

Zuckerberg was the only technology chief in the room, but he was often treated as a stand-in for the whole industry. Facebook has come under intense criticism for the Cambridge Analytica leak and for its initial response, which set off a #DeleteFacebook campaign online and sent the stock plunging more than 15 percent.

But the hearing was about more than Facebook; it exposed a critical turning point as the power, sophistication and potential exploitation of technology outpaces what users, regulators or even its creators expected or seem prepared to handle.

The moment is creating a showdown between two national power centers — Washington and Silicon Valley — as they jockey in a technology-centric world. Although Washington has long served as a check on the power of Wall Street and other profitable industries, lawmakers have tended to act as cheerleaders for technology companies rather than watchdogs. Light regulation enabled a culture of freewheeling innovation, and the beloved products that Silicon Valley companies created made them politically convenient allies.

Today, five of the eight largest companies in the world are West Coast technology companies. Only a single East Coast institution, JPMorgan Chase, cracks the top 10. And lawmakers on both sides of the aisle suggested that Facebook and other companies may not be able to police themselves.

“Have you gotten too big?” Senator Dan Sullivan, Republican of Alaska, asked Zuckerberg, before suggesting that Facebook might need to be reined in to protect it from itself.

© 2018 The New York Times News Service

First Published: Thu, April 12 2018. 02:55 IST