Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg doesn't need our sympathy when he appears before Congress this week for his ritual humiliation at the hands of the Washington establishment. But the anti-Facebook proposals already being advanced should be cause for concern.
Zuckerberg's appearance—his first on Capitol Hill—was prompted by news reports that a third-party Facebook app masquerading as a personality quiz extracted data that was sold to Cambridge Analytica, which in turn provided consulting services to Republicans. Since then, a Delete Facebook campaign has mushroomed, coupled with calls for Zuckerberg's ouster, despite the inconvenient fact that he owns over half of his company's voting shares.
Complicating matters for Zuckerberg is that both major parties have joined together for a thoroughly bipartisan denunciation of his company's alleged misdeeds.
Republicans see Facebook, with thousands of employees steeped in the deep blue sentiments of the San Francisco bay area, as tilting to the left. They remember the Trending Topics flap from 2016, the post-election revelation that chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg was slated for a top job under President Hillary Clinton, and the procession of conservatives who have found their Facebook accounts abruptly yanked, including the reported suspension a few days ago of the Trump-supporting duo Diamond and Silk. Then there were the employees who wanted Facebook to do its part to "help prevent President Trump in 2017."
Meanwhile, Democrats' instinctive predisposition for new regulations when a company is said to be misbehaving has escalated to a near obsession. Beyond the usual carefully manicured outrage about alleged privacy violations, they seem to view Facebook as a vehicle for Russian election ads and various still-to-be-determined skullduggery, which may or may not have helped to elect some fellow named Donald J. Trump. (The shortcomings of the Clinton campaign, and the actual views of those deplorables in swing states, tend not to be dwelt on overmuch.)
For his part, Zuckerberg will apologize to Congress, according to his prepared testimony released Monday. It says that politicians "rightfully have some hard questions for me to answer," adding: "We didn't take a broad enough view of our responsibility, and that was a big mistake. It was my mistake, and I'm sorry."
Members of Congress seem to view themselves more as prosecutors than interlocutors during the Senate and House of Representatives hearings that begin on Tuesday.
"It's really high noon for Facebook and the tech industry," Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D–Conn.), who apparently views himself as a stouthearted town sheriff facing down an outlaw, told The Washington Post. To buttress the point, Blumenthal served up a second analogy: This is Facebook's "unsafe at any speed moment."
Sen. Ed Markey (D–Mass.) used the opportunity to scale new heights of rhetorical excess, saying, "I think that this privacy spill is politically the equivalent of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico…. It involves our very democracy."
Over the weekend, Sen. Ron Wyden (D–Ore.) casually threatened forcible corporate dismemberment. "There are going to be people who are going to say Facebook ought to be broken up." he observed. "There have been a number of proposals and ideas for doing it and I think unless [Zuckerberg] finds a way to honor the promise he made several years ago, he's gonna have a law on his hands." Wyden said he would support such a law.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R–S.C.) is worried about "manipulation by foreign governments and intelligence services…. And then you've got the fact that data can be used for political purposes, probably outside people's imaginations." When a reporter for the Post asked whether he would support a new law targeting Facebook, Graham replied, "the long-winded answer is: Yes."
Rep. Ro Khanna (D–Calif.), whose district includes a portion of Silicon Valley, last fall called for a a new law forcing social networks to disclose who bought what ad. Recently, he told NPR, his legislative aspirations have ballooned. "We need an Internet Bill of Rights," Khanna said. "It's time that tech leaders like Zuckerberg embrace that, including a right to know what your data is, a right to be able to transfer your data, a right to be able to delete your data. There are a number of commonsense provisions that we need enshrined into law."
This is a dramatic change from when Bill Gates showed up at a 1998 Senate hearing during the middle of the government's antitrust pursuit of Microsoft.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R–Utah) was no fan of Microsoft—rival Novell was from Hatch's home state of Utah. But Hatch went out of his way to clarify the purpose during the first moments of the hearing with Gates, saying, "I want to make clear at the outset that neither this hearing nor any aspect of this committee's inquiry into these matters are intended to serve as an arena for criticizing or attacking any single company."
Don't expect that kind of gracious introductory statement this week.
But now such an outcome is more likely. It could happen in the states as well. California's S.B. 1424, introduced in February, says that anyone "who operates a social media Internet Web site with physical presence in California shall develop a strategic plan to verify news stories shared on its Internet Web site." (What social media sites don't have physical presences in California?)
There is an irony here. Facebook, as I wrote last month, said it was pulling the plug on the feature exploited by Cambridge Analytica all the way back in 2014. The changes took effect in 2015. No Senate hearings, Federal Trade Commission probes, or dogged investigative reporting convinced Facebook to disable it. Instead, the company bowed to market pressure. So you can imagine why Zuckerberg must wonder why it took the finest minds in Washington, D.C., eight years to discover the existence of a feature that has been publicly documented since its inception and was discontinued three years ago.
Perhaps Facebook's plan to do more fact-checking of "fake news" on its site could also extend to claims made by our esteemed elected officials.