Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s congressional testimony revealed much about both the social media industry, and our government’s mentality.
First, Zuckerberg. He seemed “in over his head,” repeatedly inserting “run out the clock” words and phrases into his responses to evidently hide his nervousness (do you blame him?). How many times did he say, “Congressman!” and “that’s a great question”? (Well, of course it was a great question, I waited for someone to say, because if it wasn’t so great, I wouldn’t have asked it!) Zuckerberg time and time again seemed to be buying time, running seconds off each elected representative’s four or five minutes of allotted time.
Zuckerberg got buffeted by representatives on privacy, on European regulations, and most notably by Senator Ted Cruz and Representative Steve Scalise on the subject of political bias.
Yet Zuckerberg disappointed before a worldwide audience. He had a chance to tell the world that:
1. no, a private tech company is not an unpaid deputy of the government, acting with the authority and power of the state;
2. A private tech company is not acting
in loco parentis when it obtains user information, and
3. Users across the world are free to use, or leave, Facebook and that these freedoms often exceed the freedoms people enjoy under the laws of most nations in the world today. Facebook, warts and all, is one of the most democratic institutions on the planet!
Instead, Zuckerberg came to Capitol Hill, showing contrition over the involvement of Cambridge Analytica (a third party as to which Facebook’s responsibility is unclear and dubious). What we saw — what the world saw — was the United States Congress bullying a private social media company.
Now, Zuckerberg is hardly a sympathetic figure. Many people envy him for his fantastic wealth and profile, and for his youth. Also, Silicon Valley and indeed much of American big business is quite leftist (Zuckerberg acknowledged this). But his beating — which he handled pretty well, all things considered — was both undeserved and likely to backfire.
Some representatives used the hearings to preen, showboat and showcase their “fighting for the common man” bonafides, and any business leader makes for a great whipping boy these days. But almost everyone grilling Zuckerberg showed a zeal for flexing the awesome powers of government.
There are many problems with the operations of major social media platforms. The growing publicity surrounding these problems is already causing reform, and in some cases, boycotts and departures from the platforms, and innovations by new competitors.
All we got from Washington, DC was a group of elected representatives reminding the tech innovators of America of “who’s the boss.”
I can’t help but think that, across the world, innovators and disruptors are heeding that message. So are, I fear, America’s competitors.