Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg looked and sounded sharp on Tuesday in his first-ever appearance testifying before Congress, while some lawmakers came off a bit goofy asking questions they didn’t seem to understand. Or at least that’s the popular and easy take on the day’s events, especially on Wall Street.
But outward appearances can deceive. A Congressional hearing, particularly one with a such a high-profile witness, isn’t a PhD dissertation defense, a prosecutorial Grand Jury interview, or even a job interview at Google. Anyone who has attended even a handful of Capitol Hill hearings learns that dumb questions or a lack of follow-up are common occurrences.
It’s easy for reporters covering the event to highlight that Senator Brian Schatz, when asking about Facebook-owned instant messaging service WhatsApp, used the word “email” or that Senator Bill Nelson asked about “tablets” instead of smartphones.
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But focusing on a few misstatements overlooks the tough and smart questioning from many other senators. Senators Cory Booker, Christopher Coons, and Mazie Hirono grilled Zuckerberg about how real estate advertisers used Facebook filters to exclude people of color, potentially violating federal law. Senators Kamala Harris, the former California Attorney General, Richard Blumenthal, former AG of Connecticut, and Dick Durbin all grilled Zuckerberg about privacy and data sharing.
But the line of the day came more than four hours into the hearing, from former Louisiana State Treasurer John Kennedy, expertly delivered in his slow southern drawl: “Here’s what everybody’s been trying to tell you today, and—and I say this gently—your user agreement sucks.” Later, he added: “I don’t want to have to vote to regulate Facebook, but by God I will.”
Regardless of how cleverly–or not–the senators questioned the CEO, the real significance of the hearing was visible by taking a step back and assessing the overall tone. Both Democrats and Republicans were not only critical of Facebook (FB), but also voiced support for tightening regulations on privacy and mused out loud about possible regulatory approaches. Some even touched on breaking up the company.
“When companies become big and powerful and accumulate a lot of wealth and power, what typically happens from this body is an instinct to either regulate or break up, right,” Sen. Dan Sullivan of Alaska, noted. “Look at the history of this nation. You have any thoughts on those two policy approaches?”
And despite Zuckerberg’s calm and clear answers, after the hearing, senators from both parties expressed disappointment and dissatisfaction with the CEO’s answers.
Contrast that with the 2013 hearing that featured Apple CEO Tim Cook testifying about corporate tax policies. While he got some tough questions, they were almost all from Democrats. Plenty of Republicans saw fit simply to praise Apple (AAPL) and decry tightening tax rules. No senator at Tuesday’s hearing stepped up to defend Facebook–some of its actions simply couldn’t be defended (even Zuckerberg admitted to major mistakes and offered apologies).
On the whole, the hearing signaled lawmakers were already starting to think about making new laws. In Washington, D.C., all the real wrangling happens behind the scenes, typically with a lot of input from special interests and lobbyists. In this case, it may help that some of the most influential telecom companies are pushing for tighter privacy rules on Facebook and its Internet brethren. Still there’s no guarantee that new privacy rules won’t be watered down. But Zuckerberg’s appearance did nothing to calm the furor.