You are Mark Zuckerberg. It is 1:45 pm in Room 2128 of the Rayburn Office Building. You have been testifying for almost four hours, enduring the questions of the House Financial Services Committee, five minutes per representative, some of them very angry at you. You have to pee.
Chair Maxine Waters (D-California) listens to your request for a break and consults with a staffer. There is a floor vote coming up and she wants one more member to ask you questions. So before your break, she instructs, you will take questions from Representative Katie Porter (D-California). Porter begins by asking you about a contention that Facebook’s lawyers made in court earlier this year that Facebook users have no expectation of privacy. You might have heard this—it got press coverage at the time—but you say you can’t comment without the whole context. You’re not a lawyer! She turns to the plight of the thousands of content moderators Facebook employed as contractors who look at disturbing images all day for low wages. You explain that they get more than minimum wage to police your service, at least $15 an hour and, in high-cost regions, $20 an hour. Porter isn’t impressed. She asks if you would vow to spend one hour a day for the next year doing that work. This is something you clearly don’t want to commit to. You squirm—is it nature’s call or the questioning?—and sputter that isn’t the best use of your time. She triumphantly takes that as a no. Waters grants the recess and you run a photographer gauntlet for some relief.
That, in a nutshell, is what happens when you are the chief executive of Facebook in 2019 and you come to the People’s House.
Zuckerberg knew that some of this was in store when he came to Washington to testify before the committee. Waters had warned him it would not be pleasant, as if he didn’t know all too well. He came nonetheless because Libra, Facebook’s proposed cryptocurrency, is burning. As the sole witness on Wednesday, Facebook’s CEO knew he’d be facing nearly 60 legislators eager to take a whack at him. But the cryptocurrency plan concocted within his company is in trouble—partners are leaving, regulators are vowing to ban it, and legislators like Waters think Facebook should declare a moratorium on the plan. So Zuckerberg is back to Congress for the first time in a year, to stand up for the project. He does this fully realizing that he’ll be facing people convinced that Facebook isn’t fit to deal in baseball cards, let alone a blockchain-based global payment system.
“I’m sure people wish it was anyone but Facebook putting this idea forward,” he says in his opening statement, delivered as display screens on either side of the room randomly show slides documenting the company’s misdeeds, including a long scroll entitled, “Settlements, Violations and Breaches.”
He gets that right. Waters starts by accusing him of thinking that he is above the law “and willing to step over anyone.” Representative Nydia M. Velázquez (D-New York) challenges him: “Why should we believe what you and Calibra are saying? Do you realize you have a credibility problem? Have you learned you should not lie?”
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Beyond the verbal thrashing, members of the Financial Services Committee have some genuinely relevant queries. Unlike Zuckerberg’s first congressional appearance, especially in the House, a lot of his interlocutors seemed to have done considerable homework, and they raise issues that credibly challenge some of Facebook’s pronouncements about Libra. (It helps that it takes five hours into the hearing before the word “blockchain” is uttered.)
Multiple questioners zero in on Facebook’s plan to create Libra and then turn it over to an independent association. They view it as a deceptive double-step, and block Zuckerberg from dodging questions by saying that he can’t speak for the Libra Association. Zuckerberg previously pledged not to launch its Calibra wallet until it has regulatory approval from all relevant US agencies. Under questioning, he now vows that Facebook would leave the association if it decided to go ahead without such clearance.
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