The Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, was given a rougher ride on his second day of congressional testimony on Wednesday as he faced sharp questions about the tech giant’s ability to track its users’ movements, shopping habits and browsing histories and was at one stage compared to J Edgar Hoover.
During five hours of testimony, the billionaire entrepreneur revealed that his own personal information was among that handed over to the political consultancy Cambridge Analytica, which harvested the data of up to 87 million Facebookusers without their permission.
The Democratic congresswoman Anna Eshoo, reading questions from her constituents at a hearing of the House energy and commerce committee, asked Zuckerberg whether his data was “included in the data sold to the malicious third parties”. After a brief hesitation, the Facebook CEO replied: “Yes.”
Eshoo called Facebook’s terms and conditions around privacy a “minefield” and asked Zuckerberg one of many blunt questions put to him on Wednesday: “Are you willing to change your business model to protect users’ privacy?”
Zuckerberg, 33, gave one of many evasive responses: “Congresswoman, I’m not sure what that means.”
On Tuesday, Facebook began notifying millions of people around the world that their private information may have been given to Cambridge Analytica in the worst privacy debacle in his company’s history. Zuckerberg and Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, have been on a media apology tour since the story broke in the Observer, the Guardian’s sister Sunday newspaper.
The data was collected through an app called thisisyourdigitallife, built by the Cambridge University academic Aleksandr Kogan. The Democratic congressman Eliot Engel of New York asked if Facebook planned to sue Kogan, Cambridge University or Cambridge Analytica.
Zuckerberg said legal action was being considered and added: “What we found now is that there’s a whole programme associated with Cambridge University where … there were a number of other researchers building similar apps. We do need to understand whether there is something bad going on at Cambridge University overall that will require a stronger action from us.”
Zuckerberg was presumably referring to Cambridge University’s psychometrics centre, which media reports have suggested worked with Cambridge Analytica on ways to predict human behaviour, although the university denies this.
The university said it would be “surprised” to learn Zuckerberg was only now aware of its work in the psychographics field. “Our researchers have been publishing such research since 2013 in major peer-reviewed scientific journals, and these studies have been reported widely in international media,” it added. “These have included one study in 2015 led by Dr Aleksandr Spectre [Kogan] and co-authored by two Facebook employees.”
Zuckerberg was widely considered to have emerged more or less unscathed from his near five-hour appearance before a joint Senate committee on Tuesday in what had been billed as a moment of reckoning for Silicon Valley. He was rarely thrown off his talking points by middle-aged senators who frequently displayed their lack of tech expertise.
But on Wednesday members of the House were more punchy and willing to interrupt his flow as they asked questions on privacy, surveillance, censorship and politics, regularly asking for yes or no answers which he struggled to provide.
In his opening statement, the committee chair, Greg Walden, a Republican, quoted the company’s early motto “move fast and break things”, asking whether the company had “moved too fast and broken too many things”. The Democrat Bobby Rush of Illinois pondered: “What is the difference between Facebook’s methodology and the methodology of the American political pariah [former FBI chief] J Edgar Hoover?”
Republican Marsha Blackburn said: “I can’t let you filibuster right now.”
John Sarbanes, a Democrat from Maryland, said: “Facebook is becoming a self-regulated superstructure for political discourse. Are we, the American people, going to regulate the political dialogue or are you, Mark Zuckerberg?”
The Democrat Frank Pallone asked Zuckerberg to make a clear commitment to change all Facebook’s default settings to minimise the possible collection of personal data. The Facebook founder declined to give a simple response, saying: “Congressman, this is a complex issue that I think deserves more than a one-word answer.” Pallone replied: “That’s disappointing to me.”
Mike Doyle, a Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania, raised the Cambridge Analytica matter and asked: “When the Guardian made the report, was that the first time you heard about it?” He accused Facebook of “turning a blind eye” to developers’ abuses, adding: “There is a real trust gap here. This developer data issue is just one example. Why should we trust you to follow through on these promises?”
Zuckerberg answered: “Respectfully, I disagree with that characterisation. We’ve had a review process for apps for years. We’ve reviewed tens of thousands of apps a year.”
The Florida Democrat Kathy Castor told the CEO: “A devil’s bargain has been struck. Americans do not like to be manipulated. They do not like to be spied on. Facebook now has evolved to a place where you are tracking everyone. You are collecting data on just about everybody … I don’t think the average American really understands that. You’re following Facebook users even after they log off that platform.”
Zuckerberg tried to reply, “Broadly, I disagree with your characterisation,” but was frequently cut off by Castor. She demanded: “You are collecting personal data on people who are not Facebook users. Yes or no?”
Zuckerberg failed to give a yes or no response and was again interrupted. Castor said: “You watch where we go. Isn’t that correct?”
He said: “Everyone has control over how that works.” But again Castor interjected: “Are you saying you don’t gather data on where people travel?”
She added: “It’s practically impossible these days to remain untracked in America. And that’s not part of the bargain.”
Several other members of the House committee pressed Zuckerberg on whether Facebook was transparent about much information it collects on users and even non-users. Some tech analysts following proceedings from afar picked holes in his testimony, accusing him of conflating different points on the issue of whether users own and control their data.
The technologist and reporter Ashkan Soltani tweeted: “Zuck’s answer to Rep McNerney’s question re: ‘Facebook’s collection of browsing history’ was disingenuous. Facebook *does* track browsing behavior via social widgets. However are not stored as individual websites but instead as ‘interest categories’.”
The Republican David McKinley presented screenshots of opioids available to buy on Facebook without a prescription. “Your platform is still being used to circumvent the law,” he said: “Facebook is enabling an illegal activity and in so doing you are hurting people … You said before you were going to take down those ads, but you didn’t do it.”
Zuckerberg repeated his belief that artificial intelligence was needed to help police activity on Facebook.
The Democrat Jan Schakowsky of Illinois also gave Zuckerberg an uncomfortable moment by reading aloud various apologies he had issued in the past for mistakes. “You have a long list of apologies,” she said. “This is proof to me that self-regulation simply does not work.”
Indeed, questions of greater regulation of the tech industry have run through the two days of hearings. Zuckerberg acknowledged: “The internet is growing in importance around the world in people’s lives and I think that it is inevitable that there will need to be some regulation. So my position is not that there should be no regulation but I also think that you have to be careful about regulation you put in place.”