As I watched Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg go head-to-head with members of Congress, I couldn’t help but have the same reaction I have when I get a pointless chain email from an elderly relative.
The inclination to smile, shake your head indulgently, and hit the “delete” key was impossibly strong.
Because after watching lawmakers fumble their way through the questions they posed to Zuckerberg, who’d swapped his customary hoodie for what appeared to be his dad’s suit, it’s not clear the majority of them possess the baseline understanding of what Facebook does to responsibly regulate it.
Let’s face it, Facebook was wildly irresponsible with its handling of the personal information of tens of millions of its customers. It allowed its platform to be infiltrated by operatives working on behalf of a geopolitical rival who used it to meddle in the 2016 elections. Until it was caught, the massive social media company seemed entirely indifferent to changing its ways.
But the questioning from members of Congress, most of whom are old enough to be the 33-year-old Zuckerberg’s grandparents, was excruciating to watch.
Take Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who asked Zuckerberg how Facebook, which is free, made its money.
“Senator, we run ads,” Zuckerberg said patiently.
“I see, that’s great,” the 84-year-old Hatch responded. That Zuckerberg didn’t pat him on the head and give him a cookie is a source of wonder.
Then there was Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who asked Zuckerberg: “Is Twitter the same as what you do?”
Well, no, senator. It’s Twitter. You (or, one of your staffers) even have a verified account there.
But it was also Graham who asked one of the most important questions of the five hours’ worth of grilling that was set to continue in the U.S. House on Wednesday – whether Facebook is a monopoly. Zuckerberg unconvincingly replied, “It certainly doesn’t feel like that to me.”
Which, of course, is nonsense.
That’s only true if you’re capable of time-travel, or still live in 2002, where you faithfully maintain your Friendster or MySpace pages.
Facebook, along with Google, Apple and Microsoft, is a tech behemoth whose operations touch almost every aspect of our daily lives.
If you’re not checking in on Facebook for the news (both real and fake, as it turns out), or to touch base with relatives and friends, you’re interacting on one of the platforms it controls, such as Instagram, to share the most intimate moments of your life.
And Facebook makes money - gobs of money - from our willingness to share ourselves online in a way that we could not imagine doing in flesh-and-blood interactions with others.
And behind Zuckerberg’s Ivy League earnestness and soft-touch Silicon Valley idealism, is a ruthless capitalist who knows full well that wringing as much data as possible from his customers, and then using it to attract advertisers, is the core of his business.
Still, Zuckerberg, as is the custom of a corporate titan on an apology tour, appropriately simulated penitentence before the joint committee.
“It was my mistake, and I’m sorry,” he said of the alleged sharing of the personal data of 87 million users with the English firm Cambridge Analytica, which was working on behalf of President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign.
Sorry isn’t even close.
When he was asked by Graham whether Facebook would submit to regulation, Zuckerberg told him he would if it were the right kind of regulation. Zuckerberg also said he’d be willing to send suggestions to Graham’s office for that right kind of regulation.
Yes, it’s true that Zuckberg has said, as he did in a CNN interview last month, that he’s “actually ... not sure we shouldn’t be regulated.”
And, yes, he made positive noises in response to a proposal by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, to notify users within 72 hours of any data breach.
Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, the ranking Democrat on the Commerce Committee, sounded this stern warning to Zuckerberg: “If you and other social media companies do not get your act in order, none of us are going to have any privacy anymore.”
But leaving Zuckerberg and his fellow titans to come up with appropriate regulation is way too much of a surrendering of Congress’ proper oversight role.
They’re unwilling to do it. And Congress is incapable of doing it.