Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg can expect a chilly reception at two Congressional hearings this week. Indignant politicians will rail at him for hours about privacy following recent news that political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica gained access to the data of up to 87 million Facebook users.
The planned spectacle fits into a mini-Congressional tradition: Putting tech executives in the hot seat. Over the years, a number of high-profile tech leaders like Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Apple CEO Tim Cook have appeared before House and Senate committees for a pummeling over topics like antitrust, human rights, and taxes.
Such grillings are a departure from the usually friendly reception those executives receive on Capitol Hill, where the tech industry’s campaign contributions and job creation help smooth over any differences. But as Zuckerberg is about to find out, even politicians have their breaking point if the scandal is too juicy and voters are up in arms.
The following is a brief history of some heated encounters between Congress and tech. The overarching lesson is that tech executives, if able to calmly withstand a beating and, in some cases, profusely apologize and promise to do better, can survive as political attention invariably turns elsewhere.
We’ll soon learn whether Zuckerberg, who is following the template of some of his predecessors by implementing privacy changes to Facebook, gets off as lightly.
"Your abhorrent activities in China are a disgrace"
Tech companies faced a withering attack during a House committee hearing in 2006 over accusations that they ran roughshod over civil liberties in order to make money. Google, for example, was criticized for censoring its search results in China while Yahoo came under fire for turning over email records of Chinese dissidents to the Chinese government, leading to their arrests.
“Your abhorrent activities in China are a disgrace,” California Democrat Rep. Tom Lantos told company representatives. “I cannot understand how your corporate executives sleep at night.”
CEOs from the various tech firms did not attend. Instead, they sent lower-level executives to get chewed out in their absence. Those representatives took the tongue lashing calmly, while explaining that sacrificing some ideals was the price of doing business in China. In the end, the issue died down without any new legislation, although Google later pulled its search engine out of China and Yahoo implemented tougher internal policies for sharing information with the Chinese government.
Apple's tax holiday
Fireworks seemed inevitable during a Senate hearing in 2013 that featured Apple CEO Tim Cook testifying about overhauling the corporate tax code. Apple is, of course, as adept at avoiding taxes on overseas earnings through complicated machinations as it is at selling electronics.
A few senators got in their hits on Cook, like Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who accused Apple of using “ghost companies” to avoid taxes. But a number of senators ended up gushing about Apple’s products and sought Cook’s help with their iPhones as if he worked at an Apple Store Genius Bar.
In the end, Cook seemed to win the day through his mix of charm (he was unflappable throughout) and recognition of what his audience wanted to hear (that Apple was not breaking any laws and that the Republican-friendly message that the tax code should be simplified).
Bill Gates faces Congress
Under fire for his company’s business practices, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates used a Senate committee hearing in 1998 to defend its track record and its status as a global economic engine.
The hearing, which came during an antitrust review of Microsoft, stood out for the accusations by Scott McNealy, CEO of rival Sun Microsystems, that Gates had led a campaign to illegally squash competition in the tech industry. Gates responded by saying that the real danger was the federal government imposing onerous regulation.
“Will the United States continue its breathtaking technological advances?” Gates asked the members. “I believe the answer is yes—if innovation is not restricted by government.”
Senators jousted with Gates, but didn’t exactly attack him. He remained courteous while dodging some of the more difficult questions, all while defending his huge tech empire.
The hearing ended as a draw, with Microsoft suffering no major wounds.
Ultimately, the judge in ensuing antitrust case found that Microsoft had engaged in monopolistic behavior and ordered that the company be broken up. But the ruling was overturned later on appeal followed by Microsoft agreeing to a settlement.
The tech industry vs. Russia
Facebook, Google, and Twitter’s failure to block Russian misinformation on their services during the latest presidential election set off a firestorm of criticism. And during a Senate hearing about the topic in 2017, political leaders readily vented their frustration.
“Why has it taken Facebook 11 months to come forward and help us understand the scope of this problem, see it clearly for the problem it is and begin to work in a responsible legislative way to address it?” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.)
The tech companies, which sent lower ranking executives to testify, sheepishly explained that they didn’t recognize the problem early enough and promised to devote more resources to combat it in the future. But the explanations didn’t seem to satisfy many senators, many of whom wondered why the companies didn’t act sooner.
It was an especially tough hearing for Facebook. When the disinformation problem first came to light, Zuckerberg had dismissed its significance. That will likely haunt him during his testimony this week (he amended that belief later). Senators will be more than happy to dredge that mistake up—along with the other privacy issues—and use it as just one more example of his lack of judgment.