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Wednesday, Oct 20, 2021

An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook's Battle for Domination

An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook's Battle for Domination

The Facebook expose takes readers from Zuckerberg's Harvard roots to becoming a tech billionaire to the social media giant's ultimate collapse of public and political trust.

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.

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."

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a House Financial Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019, on Facebook's impact on the financial services and housing sectors.


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

smile.

"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

were headed.

"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

catch-up.

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

insisted.

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,"

he said.

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

it.

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

ProPublica.

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

his wealth.

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