A new tell-all by New York Times reporters Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang,"An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook's Battle for Domination" takes a hard look at Facebook’s meteoric rise and what's been described as its "slow-motion fall from grace," tainting founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg and the company’s high profile Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg.
Some recent reports suggest the two executives co-exist in a strained relationship.
Comprised customer data leaked without users’ knowledge, allegations of U.S. election interference, and the spreading of misinformation top a long list of missteps that continue to dog the social media giant.
This excerpt of the book, shared with FOX Business, details the leak of tens of millions of accounts that would eventually become known in the U.S. and across the pond as the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
Chapter 8: ‘Delete Facebook’
On March 17, 2018, the New York Times and the Observer of London
broke front-page stories about a company called Cambridge
Analytica that had obtained profile information, records of likes
and shares, photo and location tags, and the lists of friends of
tens of millions of Facebook users. A whistleblower within the
UK-based political consulting firm had brought the story to the
news organizations with a stunning claim that the firm, funded by
Trump supporter Robert Mercer and led by Trump’s senior adviser,
Stephen K. Bannon, had created a new level of political ad targeting
using Facebook data on personality traits and political values.
But the jaw-dropping detail was that Cambridge Analytica had
harvested the Facebook data without users’ permission. "The breach
allowed the company to exploit the private social media activity of
a huge swath of the American electorate, developing techniques that
underpinned its work on President Trump’s campaign in 2016,"
the New York Times reported. The Observer wrote that the "unprecedented
data harvesting, and the use to which it was put, raises
urgent new questions about Facebook’s role in targeting voters in
the US presidential election."
It was the latest breach of trust in Facebook’s repeated pattern
of data privacy abuses. The company’s long history of sharing user
data with thousands of apps across the internet had opened the
door for Cambridge Analytica to harvest data on up to 87 million
Facebook users without their knowledge. But the case struck
a particular nerve because of the firm’s most famous client: the
campaign of Donald J. Trump. With outrage over Facebook’s role
in election interference running high and the United States fiercely
divided over Trump’s election, the story brought together two raging
veins of anger within the nation in a watershed privacy scandal.
Three weeks later, Zuckerberg sat at a small witness table in
the cavernous wood-paneled hearing room of the Hart Senate Office
Building. He wore a slim-cut navy suit and a tie of Facebook
blue. He appeared fatigued, his face drained of color and his eyes
sunken, he stared ahead unflinching as photographers jockeyed for
position around him, cameras whirring in his face. An entourage
of Facebook executives—Joel Kaplan, Colin Stretch, and several
lobbyists—sat behind the CEO, wearing grim expressions.
"Facebook is an idealistic and optimistic company," Zuckerberg
said in his opening remarks. He presented a benevolent picture of
the social network as a platform that had spread awareness of the
"MeToo" movement and helped student organizers coordinate the
March for Our Lives. After Hurricane Harvey, users had raised
more than twenty million dollars on Facebook for relief, he added.
"For most of our existence, we focused on all the good that connecting
people can do."
It was Zuckerberg’s first appearance before Congress, and he faced
a hostile audience. Hundreds of spectators, lobbyists, and privacy
advocates had gathered outside the hearing room in a line that
snaked around the marble halls. Protestors crowded the entrance
to the building with "Delete Facebook" signs. Cardboard cutouts
of Zuckerberg wearing a "Fix Facebook" T-shirt
dotted the Capitol Building lawn.
Inside, he faced forty-four senators seated in tall black leather
chairs on a two-tier dais. On his table, a small microphone was attached
to a box with a digital countdown clock lit in red. His black
leather notebook was open to his talking points—"
Defend Facebook, Disturbing Content and Election Industry (Russia)"—next
to a single yellow pencil.
Sen. Dick Durbin, a senior Democrat from Illinois, peered down
at Zuckerberg over black-framed glasses perched on the end of his
nose. "Mr. Zuckerberg, would you be comfortable sharing with
us the name of the hotel you stayed in last night?" Durbin began.
Zuckerberg struggled for a response, glancing at the ceiling and
laughing nervously. "Um no," he answered with an uncomfortable
"If you messaged anybody this week, would you share with us
the names of the people you’ve messaged?" Durbin continued.
Zuckerberg’s smile began to fade. It was clear where the questions
"Senator, no, I would probably not choose to do that publicly
here," Zuckerberg replied in a serious tone.
"I think this may be what this is all about," Durbin said. "Your
right to privacy, the limits of your right to privacy, and how much
you give away in modern America in the name of, quote, connecting
people around the world."
How Cambridge Analytica breached Facebook users’ privacy traced
back eight years, to when Zuckerberg stood on the stage at the F8
developers’ conference in San Francisco and announced the creation
of "Open Graph," a program that allowed outside app developers
to gain access to Facebook users’ information. In return, Facebook
got users to extend their sessions on the site. Zuckerberg then invited
gaming, retail, and media apps to plug into Facebook, and in
the first week after the F8 conference, fifty thousand websites had
installed Open Graph plug-ins. Facebook offered the apps access
to its most valuable asset: users’ names, email addresses, cities of
residence, birth dates, relationship details, political affiliations, and
employment history. In the race to sign up partners, salespeople
had been instructed to dangle the offer of data as an incentive.
Safety and privacy were an afterthought. For every ten Facebook
employees tasked with recruiting new partners to the Open Graph
system, and helping them set up their systems to receive data from
Facebook, there was one person overseeing the partnerships and
making sure the data was used responsibly.
At least one Facebook employee, a platform operations manager
named Sandy Parakilas, had tried to warn the company about the
dangers of the program. In 2012, Parakilas alerted senior executives,
including Chris Cox, that the program was a privacy and
security stink bomb, and presented them with a PowerPoint that
showed how Open Graph left users exposed to data brokers and foreign
state actors. It was highly likely that Open Graph had spurred
a black market for Facebook user data, Parakilas had cautioned.
But when he suggested that Facebook investigate, the executives
scoffed. "Do you really want to see what you’ll find?" one senior official
asked. Disillusioned, Parakilas left the company months later.
In 2014, Zuckerberg shifted strategies and announced that he
was shutting down the Open Graph program because it wasn’t
yielding the engagement he wanted. Just before Facebook closed
its doors to outside developers, though, an academic at Cambridge
University named Aleksandr Kogan plugged into the Open Graph
and created a personality quiz called "thisisyourdigitallife." Nearly
300,000 Facebook users participated. Kogan harvested data from
those individuals as well as their Facebook friends, multiplying his
data set to nearly 90 million Facebook users. He then turned the
data over to a third party, Cambridge Analytica, in violation of
Facebook’s rules for developers.
The backlash to the scandal was swift and fierce. Hours after
the story landed, Democratic senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota
called for Zuckerberg to testify before Congress. The hashtag
#DeleteFacebook started trending on Twitter. Republican senator
John Kennedy of Louisiana joined Klobuchar on March 19 with
a letter to the Judiciary Committee chairman asking for a hearing
with Zuckerberg. Celebrities amplified the #DeleteFacebook
hashtag, with Cher announcing the next day that she was deleting
her Facebook account, which had been an instrumental tool
for her charity work. There were "things more important" than
money, she tweeted. Even friends of Sandberg and Zuckerberg
emailed them saying they had deleted their accounts. Thousands
of users tweeted screenshots of the messages they had received from
Facebook confirming deactivation.
On Tuesday, March 20, 2018, Facebook’s deputy general counsel,
Paul Grewal, held an emergency meeting with all employees to
inform them that the company had begun an internal investigation
of Cambridge Analytica. Zuckerberg and Sandberg didn’t attend, a
red flag that generated more concern among employees.
That same day, members of the Federal Trade Commission
informed reporters that the agency was conducting an investigation
of its own into violations of Facebook’s 2011 privacy consent
decree. The consent decree had been a big deal—a
sweeping settlement agreement over charges that the company had repeatedly
deceived users and abused their data. Reached after months of
negotiations, that settlement had resolved a complaint involving
eight counts of illegal activity, starting with the change to privacy
settings in December 2009. To settle the charges, Facebook had
agreed to two decades of privacy audits, which the Democratic-led
FTC described as "historic," a new bar for privacy enforcement. The
company had also agreed to inform users of any changes to its privacy
policy. "Facebook’s innovation does not have to come at the
expense of consumer privacy," then–FTC chairman Jon Leibowitz had proclaimed in the official announcement. "The FTC action will ensure it will not." And yet, here they were, seven years later, in apparent violation of the decree. British authorities also opened an investigation into Facebook
and seized Cambridge Analytica’s servers. The United Kingdom
had already begun to investigate the political consulting firm over
its alleged role in the 2016 referendum in which Britons voted to
leave the European Union, a move known as "Brexit." The new
revelations about Cambridge Analytica’s harvesting of Facebook
data fanned concerns in Great Britain over political targeting in
the lead-up to that contentious vote.
Facebook’s stock had dropped 10 percent since the news broke,
wiping out $50 billion of the company’s market capitalization. As
the crisis unfolded, Zuckerberg and Sandberg didn’t make any
public statements or appearances. News outlets questioned their
absence. Vox, CNN, and the Guardian ran stories with the same
headline: "Where’s Mark Zuckerberg?" The answer wasn’t terribly
surprising. Zuckerberg and a group of his direct reports and PR
experts had been camped out in the Aquarium, returning to their
homes only for a change of clothes and a few hours of sleep. They
took up every seat on the gray L-shaped couch and every one of
the conference table chairs. The air in the room was stale, and paper
coffee cups, soda cans, and candy wrappers littered the blond-wood
table and floor.
Sandberg’s conference room down the hall was in similar disarray.
She had corralled her bleary-eyed army of policy and communications
staff as well as her "kitchen cabinet" of external advisers,
including David Dreyer, a former senior official for the Treasury
Department, and his business partner, Eric London. The two ran
a Washington, DC–based consulting and public affairs firm that
Sandberg used as personal and professional consultants. The advisers
were dialed into the room by speakerphone.
The first order of business, as Zuckerberg saw it, was to play
He ordered staff to shut down external communications
until he had a grasp of the situation. He next directed Sandberg and
the legal and security teams to scour emails, memos, and messages
among Facebook employees, Kogan, and Cambridge Analytica
to figure out how the company had lost track of its own data. But the
employees who knew about the arrangement with Cambridge Analytica
had either left Facebook or lost contact with their business
partners. On March 19, Facebook hired a digital forensics firm in
London to try to access Cambridge Analytica’s servers. The UK
Information Commissioner’s Office turned the staff away; it had
already seized the servers.
The little that Facebook knew was damning. The company had
learned about Cambridge Analytica in December 2015, from a report
in the Guardian on how the presidential campaign of Ted
Cruz had hired the political consulting firm for its ability to use
Facebook data to target voters. One of Facebook’s partnership
managers had ordered the company to delete the data after the
story was published, but no one had followed up for confirmation.
Zuckerberg fixated on technical details, such as how Cambridge
Analytica had obtained the data and how it was transferred from
Facebook to Kogan and then from Kogan to Cambridge Analytica.
The breach stemmed from his side of the business, the product
side, and he was the architect of the Open Graph. Still, privately,
he fumed at Sandberg. During their regular Friday meeting, he
snapped that she should have done more to head off the story, or at
least to control the narrative around it. As far as he was concerned,
it was the second time she had failed to control the press narrative
around a Facebook scandal; he had also taken note of her failure to
spin the Russian election interference and the fallout in Congress.
Sandberg quietly told friends at the company about their exchange
and voiced her concern that Zuckerberg might fire her. They assured
her that he was just letting off steam. The expectation that
Sandberg could, or should, be held responsible for the crisis was
unrealistic, some employees felt. "Cambridge Analytica came from
a decision in the product organization that Mark owned. Sheryl
has been an adviser and would say something is good or bad, but
the decision rested with Mark," one former employee observed.
Even before the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke, Sandberg was
finding the company’s slow-motion fall from grace personally devastating.
In January 2018, she had made her regular pilgrimage to
Davos, where Trump spoke, but she stayed out of the spotlight. She
didn’t speak on any panels, but Facebook was constantly invoked
by others. In a panel called "In Technology We Trust?," Salesforce
CEO Marc Benioff noted that election interference and privacy
violations demonstrated the need to regulate tech companies. That
same afternoon on CNBC, he told journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin
that Facebook was as dangerous as tobacco. "Here’s a product,
cigarettes, that are addictive, you know they’re not good for you,"
Benioff said. "There’s a lot of parallels."
Two days later, at the annual dinner he hosted each year, George
Soros delivered a speech in which he expressed deep concern about
the role of propaganda and disinformation campaigns on social
media in the U.S. elections. A Hungarian-born
Jewish refugee and
survivor of the Holocaust, Soros laid partial blame on Facebook’s
business model, which he claimed hijacked attention for commercial
purposes, "inducing people to give up their autonomy." He
called Facebook and Google monopolies with neither "the will nor
the inclination to protect society against the consequences of their
actions." The criticisms felt like a pile-on; no one was heralding the
good the company did. Organizers for the 2017 Women’s March
in Washington had used Facebook to coordinate the event; the
company had helped sign up two million Americans to vote; users
tapped Facebook friends to find organ donors—the
powerful examples of Facebook’s contributions to society were getting washed
out by a few bad examples of harm, Sandberg complained to aides.
She liked to recount the story, now well known, of how Wael
Ghonim, an Egyptian activist, had used Facebook to organize
protests against the authoritarian regime under Hosni Mubarak,
helping to spark an Egyptian Revolution that swept the country
and spread to Tunisia. In an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer
after Mubarak resigned, Ghonim exclaimed, "I want to meet Mark
Zuckerberg one day and thank him." But Sandberg never spoke
about how free expression also included harmful content—such
as the conspiracy theory that the mass murder at Sandy Hook Elementary
School was a fabrication or that vaccines would lead to
autism. It was as if she curated her worldview to exclude negative
or even critical feedback. When the company had relocated to the
new Menlo Park offices, she had even named her conference room
"Only Good News." The uplifting stories were validation both of
Facebook’s mission and of her ambition to run a company that was
more than a profit center.
Sandberg responded defensively to attacks on the intentions
of the company’s leaders. To her, the grousing was reminiscent of
the public backlash to Lean In. Leading into the interview portion
of the 60 Minutes segment featuring the book, Norah O’Donnell
described Sandberg as a public school kid from Miami who had
rocketed through Harvard, the Clinton administration, and the
top ranks of Google to become one of the world’s most powerful
executives as the second-in-command at Facebook. But that was
not what was putting her in the headlines now, O’Donnell added.
"In a new book that has already touched a nerve, Sandberg proposes
a reason for why there are so few women at the top," the
anchor said, raising a perfectly arched eyebrow. "The problem, she
said, might just be women themselves." Lean In had grown out of the commencement address Sandberg delivered at Barnard College in 2011, a call for women to lean into
their careers that became a viral video and turned her into a new
feminist icon. But O’Donnell put her finger on the growing resentment
of not just the book but also its author. Sandberg, some
thought, was unfairly blaming women instead of pointing a finger
at cultural and institutional gender biases. She was letting men off
the hook and asking women to succeed by men’s rules. And perhaps
most damning of all, she was out of touch with the reality of
the majority of working women, women without partners at home
to share domestic duties or the financial resources to hire nannies,
tutors, and cleaners, as Sandberg could. "You’re suggesting women aren’t ambitious," O’Donnell said. The majority of the twelve-minute piece had presented a glowing
profile of Sandberg, but when O’Donnell confronted her with
the critiques of the book in the interview portion of the segment,
Sandberg’s expression tightened. She wanted women to know that they had many options and
shouldn’t cut off professional opportunities, she quickly countered.
The data showed that women weren’t asking for raises or promotions
or leading meeting discussions. It was her responsibility to
share her research and life experience. Her intention, in writing
her book, was to empower women and help them get smarter on
how to navigate their careers. "My message is not one of blaming
women," she said. "There’s an awful lot we don’t control. I am
saying that there’s an awful lot we can control and we can do for
ourselves, to sit at more tables, raise more hands."
She had been warned that she would draw criticism for the
book. One friend told her she came across as elitist: most women
would not be able to relate to her experience as a white, highly
educated woman with great wealth. But Sandberg was blindsided
by the naysayers. Maureen Dowd, the New York Times columnist,
described her as a "PowerPoint Pied Piper in Prada ankle boots
reigniting the women’s revolution." The COO might mean well,
Dowd allowed, but her call to arms was based on an out-of-
Touch conceit. "People come to a social movement from the bottom up,
not the top down. Sandberg has co-opted the vocabulary and romance
of a social movement not to sell a cause, but herself."
To Sandberg, critics like Dowd missed the point. "My entire life,
I have been told or I have felt that I should hold back on being too
successful, too smart, too lots of things," she said to O’Donnell.
"This is deeply personal for me. I want every little girl [to whom]
someone says you’re bossy to be told instead, you have leadership
skills." The backlash felt personal and unfair—an affront. She felt attacked
on what she saw as unassailable territory: her good intentions.
Likewise, the public lashing of Facebook felt unwarranted. The
company had become a scapegoat, a convenient target for business
rivals, Sandberg told senior staff in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica
scandal. The media portrayals of the company were born
from jealousy: newspapers blamed the decline of the publishing industry
on Facebook, and the media were punishing the platform
with negative coverage. Other executives thought there was an even
simpler explanation for the backlash: that if Cambridge Analytica
weren’t associated with Trump, there wouldn’t be a controversy.
"Trump’s election is why everyone is mad at us," one longtime executive
Someone needed to make a public stand. Five days after the
scandal broke, Zuckerberg agreed to let a CNN reporter into the
Aquarium for an interview. The CEO began on a familiar note
of contrition. "This was a major breach of trust, and I’m really
sorry that this happened," he said, wearing his deer-caught-
in-the-headlights look. The company would begin an audit of all the apps
that could have possessed and retained sensitive data, he assured
CNN’s Laurie Segall.
But when Segall asked why Facebook didn’t make sure back in
2015 that Cambridge Analytica had deleted the data, Zuckerberg
bristled. "I don’t know about you," he said, not bothering to hide
his impatience, "but I’m used to when people legally certify they’re
going to do something, that they do it."
Zuckerberg had prepped for his congressional appearance with a
team of litigators from the DC law firm WilmerHale. In mock
hearings, they bombarded him with questions about privacy and
election interference and quizzed him on the names and backgrounds
of each of the lawmakers. They warned him about questions
out of left field intended to shake him off his talking points.
The stakes were high: the hearings promised to pull back the
curtain on Facebook’s cash cow of targeted advertising and force
Zuckerberg to defend a part of the business he rarely discussed
in public. The CEO was famously nervous in public appearances,
prone to breaking into a sweat and stuttering through hard interviews.
His staff rarely challenged him, so executives weren’t
sure how he’d respond to tough questions, grandstanding, and
interruptions—hallmarks of congressional hearings.
Facebook’s lobbyists had fought to prevent Zuckerberg from
testifying. Sandberg was the company’s appointed representative to
Washington, and she was an unflappable and reliable public speaker,
never deviating from the company message. At Trump’s meeting
with tech executives soon after his election, Sandberg had represented
Facebook at the Trump Tower gathering, along with the
CEOs of Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft. (Kaplan, who
accompanied Sandberg, stayed one day longer to interview with
the Trump transition team for the position of director of the Office
of Management and Budget. He withdrew before a decision was
made.) But lawmakers had refused to accept a substitute for Zuckerberg.
When Dick Durbin and Marco Rubio, Republican senator
from Florida, threatened to subpoena Zuckerberg, the Facebook
founder’s staff agreed to the marathon two days of hearings before
more than one hundred lawmakers. As a small concession, they
asked congressional aides to crank up the air-conditioning
for the CEO.
Some of Facebook’s lobbyists and communications staff watched
a livestream of the hearing in a conference room in the Washington
offices. In Menlo Park, executives gathered in a glass conference
room with the hearing displayed on one TV screen and their
colleagues in DC on videoconference on another. The employees
winced as lawmakers took shots at Zuckerberg for repeated privacy
violations over the years and his empty apologies to the public.
Many of the questions took direct aim at Facebook’s business
model. Public relations staff sent texts to reporters in the hearing
room to gauge their impressions of Zuckerberg’s performance. The
consensus seemed to be that he was steady and cool, unfazed by interruptions
or by the recriminations of wrongdoing. He was clearly
prepared and able to answer a wide range of questions.
For the most part, Zuckerberg stuck to the script. But he also
dodged multiple questions by promising that his staff would follow
up with answers. And he delivered Facebook’s standard defense
that it gave users control over how their data was used and that
the company didn’t barter data for profit. "We do not sell data to
advertisers. What we allow is for advertisers to tell us who they
want to reach. And then we do the placement."
Also watching the hearing was Jeff Chester, the privacy advocate.
He stood in his small home office in Takoma Park, Maryland,
in a fury. Scattered across the floor around him were piles of Facebook’s
brochures and PowerPoints for advertisers that showcased a
different view of the company—materials Chester had collected at advertising conferences where Facebook bragged about the power of its ad tools to global ad agencies and brands like Coca-Cola
and Procter and Gamble. Inside the hotel ballrooms of ad industry conferences
like Advertising Week in New York, Facebook’s executives
boasted about the company’s unparalleled stockpile of data and its
ability to track users off the site. They claimed it had more data
than any other company and that it was able to help advertisers
influence the minds of its 2.2 billion users. But to the public, Facebook
rarely talked about the business in that manner.
Chester watched now as Sen. Roger Wicker, the chair of the
Commerce Committee, asked if Facebook tracked users when they
browsed other sites. Facebook had a tool called "Pixel" that allowed
it to collect data on its users while they were off the site, a tool well
known in the ad and tech industries. But Zuckerberg dodged the
question. "Senator, I want to make sure I get this accurate, so it
would probably be better to have my team follow up afterward,"
Chester couldn’t contain himself. Facebook itself promoted such
products to its advertisers. He tweeted a link to Facebook’s marketing
material on Pixel and other tools it used to track users while
they were not on the platform. For the next three hours, every time
Zuckerberg gave vague or misleading answers, Chester tweeted
links to evidence of Facebook’s data mining and behavioral tracking.
The Facebook CEO was deliberately misleading the clueless
committee members, Chester thought. He had been complaining
to journalists for years about how Congress, both parties, had allowed
Facebook to mushroom into a "digital Frankenstein," and
now that they had Zuckerberg at the witness table, they were bungling
Facebook was at its heart an advertising company. By 2018,
along with Google, it constituted a duopoly in digital advertising,
with a combined $135 billion in advertising revenue reported in
2017. That year, Facebook’s advertising revenue surpassed that of
all U.S. newspapers combined. The platform’s powerful tracking
tools could follow users off the site and had gathered user data
that could be broken down into more than fifty thousand unique
categories, according to an investigation by the nonprofit news site
An advertiser could target users by religious preference,
political leaning, credit score, and income; it knew, for instance,
that 4.7 million Facebook users were likely to live in households
with a net worth of $750,000 to $1 million. "They started an arms
war for data. For better or worse, Facebook is an incredibly important
platform for civil life, but the company is not optimized for
civil life," explained Ethan Zuckerman, the creator of the pop-up
ad and an associate professor of public policy, communication, and
information at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. "It is
optimized for hoovering data and making profits."
For years, Chester and other consumer advocates had warned
regulators that Facebook was pushing new boundaries and thriving
in the rules-free environment at the expense of consumers: it
was harder to get government approval for a radio license in rural
Montana or to introduce a new infant toy, they pointed out, than
to create a social network for a quarter of the world’s population.
Over the past two decades, Congress had proposed multiple laws
to protect online privacy, but under tremendous lobbying pressure
by tech companies over details in the bills and gridlock in Congress,
they had all fizzled.
That Tuesday in the hearing room, Zuckerberg adopted a more
cooperative tone than in the past. When challenged on Facebook’s
long history of fighting regulations, he said he welcomed the "right
regulation" in the United States, and he confirmed that Facebook
would implement European privacy mandates introduced that year
to protect all of Facebook’s global users. "The expectations on internet
companies and technology companies overall are growing,"
he said. "I think the real question is ‘What is the right framework
for this?’ not ‘Should there be one?’ "
Zuckerberg talked a good game about the platform’s commitment
to security and data privacy, but the general consensus inside
the company was that growth came first and that safety and
security were an afterthought. Engineers were given engagement
targets, and their bonuses and annual performance reviews were
anchored to measurable results on how their products attracted
more users or kept them on the site longer. "It’s how people are
incentivized on a day-to-day basis," one former employee recalled.
On March 20, Sandy Parakilas, the operations manager who had
warned about the Open Graph tool, noted in a Washington Post
op-ed that in his sixteen months working at Facebook, he never
saw "a single audit of a developer where the company inspected
the developer’s data storage." He believed the explanation for lax
enforcement was simple: "Facebook didn’t want to make the public
aware of huge weaknesses in its data security."
Indeed, despite Zuckerberg’s assurances to Congress, Facebook
was waging a full-scale war against U.S. privacy regulations. Kaplan
had built a formidable DC team, with fifty lobbyists, and was
on track to spend $12.6 million that year, which made his operation
the ninth-biggest corporate lobbying office in Washington.
Facebook spent more on lobbying than oil giant Chevron or
ExxonMobil and more than drug giant Pfizer or Roche. Kaplan
had also turned Facebook into a powerful political force using the
company’s deep-pocketed PAC to fund political campaigns, doling
out donations to Republicans and Democrats equally. It was important
to keep alliances balanced, Kaplan had preached to his
staff. In fact, Facebook’s PAC had donated to the campaigns of
more than half of all the lawmakers questioning Zuckerberg over
the two days of testimonies.
Weeks after the hearing, Kaplan would meet privately with the
top lobbyists of IBM, Google, and other tech giants at the Washington
offices of their trade group, the Information Technology
Industry Council. A California privacy bill was advancing that
would be much stronger than the European Union’s General Data
Protection Regulation, a landmark law that would make it harder
for Facebook to collect data and that would allow internet users
to see what data was being collected. Kaplan would propose that
the tech companies suggest a federal law on privacy with fewer
restrictions than the California law, one that would also preempt
state legislation. He was leading an industry fight for the most permissive
regulations on privacy. The hearing was "the most intense public scrutiny I’ve seen for a
tech-related hearing since the Microsoft hearing,"
Sen. Orrin Hatch, the eighty-four-year-old Republican of Utah, said. It was about
one hour into questioning, and several news outlets were carrying
live blogs describing the lawmakers as tough and unrelenting and
Zuckerberg as under siege. But then the questioning took an unexpected turn.
"How do you sustain a business model in which users don’t pay
for your service?" Hatch asked. The senator didn’t seem to understand
the most basic details of how Facebook worked.
Zuckerberg paused and then smiled. "Senator, we run ads." The
audience chuckled, and executives in Washington and Menlo Park
exploded with laughter.
In the joint Senate Committee on Commerce and Senate Committee
on the Judiciary hearing, the average age of its four leaders
was seventy-five. The average age of all the members of the combined
committees was not much younger. They were not the social
media generation. Several lawmakers stumbled over the basic functions
of Facebook and its other apps, Instagram and WhatsApp.
Zuckerberg was looking more comfortable. None of the questions
forced him to deviate from his script. When he was asked,
about two hours in, if he needed a break, he declined. "You can do
a few more," he said with a small smile.
In Washington and Menlo Park, employees cheered. "Oh, he’s
feeling good!" one Washington staffer exclaimed.
Even younger congressional members made embarrassing errors.
"If I’m emailing within WhatsApp, does that ever inform your advertisers?"
asked Sen. Brian Schatz, forty-five, from Hawaii, earlier
in the hearing. The app was for messaging, not for emailing, Zuckerberg
explained, and all messages were encrypted. Four hours in,
a lawmaker asked if Facebook listened in on voice calls to collect
data for advertising. Others tripped up on jargon for how terms of
service were used and how data was stored.
As some of the lawmakers exposed their deep knowledge gap
in technology, the spotlight was shifting from Facebook’s harmful
business model to America’s Luddite elected officials. "Lawmakers
seem confused about what Facebook does—and
how to fix it," a headline from Vox read. The hearings would become fodder for
late-night television hosts Jimmy Kimmel and Stephen Colbert,
who ran video reels on members’ bad tech questions. Regulators
tweeted that there needed to be new divisions within Congress and
regulatory agencies to bolster tech expertise. In a stroke of enormous
luck, the public shifted its ire toward Washington.
Zuckerberg returned to Silicon Valley at the end of the second
day of hearings. Once his flight back to San Francisco was wheels
up, staff in Washington celebrated at a wine bar in Georgetown.
Shares of Facebook made their biggest daily gain in nearly two
years, closing up 4.5 percent. Over ten hours of testimony and six
hundred questions, Zuckerberg had added three billion dollars to