Under fire for the worst privacy debacle in his company’s history, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg batted away often-aggressive questioning Tuesday from lawmakers who accused him of failing to protect the personal information of millions of Americans from Russians intent on upsetting the US election.During some five hours of Senate questioning, Zuckerberg apologised several times for Facebook failures, disclosed that his company was “working with” special counsel Robert Mueller in the federal probe of Russian election interference and said it was working hard to change its own operations after the harvesting of users’ private data by a data-mining company affiliated with Donald Trump’s campaign.Seemingly unimpressed, Republican Sen. John Thune of South Dakota said Zuckerberg’s company had a 14-year history of apologising for “ill-advised decisions” related to user privacy. “How is today’s apology different?” Thune asked.“We have made a lot of mistakes in running the company,” Zuckerberg conceded, and Facebook must work harder at ensuring the tools it creates are used in “good and healthy” ways.
The controversy has brought a flood of bad publicity and sent the company’s stock value plunging, but Zuckerberg seemed to achieve a measure of success in countering that: Facebook shares surged 4.5% for the day, the biggest gain in two years.In all, he skated largely unharmed through his first day of congressional testimony. He’ll face House questioners Wednesday.
The 33-year-old founder of the world’s best-known social media giant appeared in a suit and tie, a departure from the T-shirt he’s famous for wearing in public as well as in private. Even so, his youth cast a sharp contrast with his often-elderly, gray-haired Senate inquisitors. And the enormous complexity of the social network he created at times defeated the attempts of legislators to hammer him on Facebook’s specific failures and how to fix them.The stakes are high for both Zuckerberg and his company. Facebook has been reeling from its worst-ever privacy failure following revelations last month that the political data-mining firm Cambridge Analytica, which was affiliated with Trump’s 2016 campaign, improperly scooped up data on some 87 million users. Zuckerberg has been on an apology tour for most of the past two weeks, culminating in his congressional appearance Tuesday.
Although shaky at times, Zuckerberg seemed to gain confidence as the day progressed. An iconic figure as a billionaire entrepreneur who changed the way people around the world relate to each other, he made a point of repeatedly referring back to the Harvard dorm room where he said Facebook was brought to life.At times, he showed plenty of steel. After aggressive questioning about Facebook’s alleged political bias from Sen. Ted Cruz, for instance, Zuckerberg was asked if he was ready to take a break.No need. “That was pretty good,” he said of the exchange with Cruz.For the most part, his careful but generally straightforward answers, steeped in the sometimes arcane details of Facebook’s underlying functions, often deflected aggressive questioning.