How the Senate's tech illiteracy saved Mark Zuckerberg

All the coverage leading up to ...

Posted: Apr 11, 2018 9:54 AM
Updated: Apr 11, 2018 9:54 AM

All the coverage leading up to Mark Zuckerberg's first of two days of congressional testimony on Tuesday suggested he was in for a real grilling. The rare Washington appearance comes as the Facebook CEO's company finds itself in the midst of massive questions about data privacy and its broader role in American life.

Turns out it was more of a light-ish roasting -- thanks in large part to the fact that the vast majority of the senators tasked with questioning Zuckerberg simply lacked anything beyond a surface understanding of what it is Facebook actually does.

It was, to be blunt, like watching your grandfather try to understand how they got the internet onto your new Macbook Pro. Or asking Ted Williams about whether you put your right hand or left hand on top when you swing a bat.

Here's one example -- via an exchange between Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Zuckerberg:

Hatch: "How do you sustain a business model in which users don't pay for your service?"

Zuckerberg: "Senator, we run ads."

Awk-ward.

Of course, not every exchange was like that. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican, was smart and informed. Ditto Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, who nailed Zuckerberg down on what, exactly it means that every user "owns" his or her own information on the Facebook platform. And Sen. Chris Coons, D-Delaware, highlighted the problems inherent in Facebook's ad targeting. (What if a diet pill manufacturer was able to target teenagers struggling with bulimia or anorexia?)

And the first set of questions most senators asked were just fine -- likely because those questions were, at least in part, written by staffers with more of a working knowledge of what Facebook does and the problems inherent in it.

The problem was that once Zuckerberg responded -- and he largely stuck to a very strict script in doing so -- the lack of tech knowledge among those asking him questions was exposed. The result? Zuckerberg was rarely pressed, rarely forced off his talking points, almost never made to answer for the very real questions his platform faces.

The Point: The Senate is a very useful place to discuss many of the issues facing the country. On Tuesday, at least, it was not a very helpful forum in which to debate the existential challenges the technology behemoth has posed to us as a country.

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