Mark Zuckerberg sat alone at a table in one of the most massive Senate joint committee hearings ever, with 44 senators, nearly half the Senate, in attendance so as not to miss the opportunity to speechify for the cameras. The senators understood one thing: the internet is bigger and more powerful than they are, and there was no way they were going to pass up the opportunity to create a record about how they’re going to protect the children.
My first joke was that Zuck’s entrance into the chamber brought the average age of the room down by 58 years. Cute, if hyperbolic, right? But what wasn’t an exaggeration was that Zuck showed up wearing a blue suit, a white shirt, a lavender tie, like a normie. He dressed respectfully, which means he didn’t have the guts to wear a Def Leppard tee. What a coward.
Even worse, he behaved himself. He listened to the 44 speechify, threaten, ask insipid questions (how many Nevadans had their data breached? Are you kidding?), and he responded. No snark. No ridicule. He played it straight. It was disgusting.
The hearing should give everyone serious pause if they think that federal legislation is going to solve the serious and growing issues of technology run amok.
For one simple reason: Legislators don’t seem to understand it well enough to even ask the right questions, much less fix the problem.
The crux of Zuck’s prepared testimony was that Facebook failed, and he personally took responsibility for it. People love it when someone apologizes, and then they ooh and ahh and forgive him, with the stern warning that he should never let it happen again. Then you look down, shuffle your feet and promise it will never happen again. Then everyone hugs and drinks a cup of cocoa. That was Zuck’s plan.
Congress has a sordid history of regulating the digital world. The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, enacted in 1986, has wreaked havoc in its confused inability to address today’s digital reality. Congress could have amended it, fixed it, but it hasn’t. Instead, it enacted SESTA. Meet the brain trust.
“If Facebook and other online companies will not or cannot fix these privacy invasions, then we will,” warned Sen. Bill Nelson (Fla.), the ranking Democrat on the Commerce Committee.
Nelson, 75, started out by stating his less-than-convincing digital bona fides: “From the moment we get up, we’re on those handheld . . .” and here he paused, searching for the right word and finishing up with a flourish: “. . . tablets.”
Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), 85, who ran Tuesday’s show, strained over unfamiliar words as he asked Zuckerberg about “complex click-through consent pages.”
And 84-year-old Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) tried his best but continued to call the largest tech platforms “websites,” as if referring to Zappos.com. Then he teed up a question so basic about Facebook’s business model that Zuckerberg answered it in four words: “Senator, we run ads.”
But not everyone in the Senate is auditioning for that hysterically funny commercial where the old women tapes pictures to her living room wall. There was Ted Cruz who played to the lowest common denominator, right edition, about Section 230 Safe Harbor.
Unlike old men like Grassley and Hatch, Cruz knows damn well that Section 230 does not require a platform to be neutral. This is a lie being perpetrated to play to the ignorance of those who are butthurt about being on the wrong side of Zuck’s public relations campaign of being all social justice-y. And Zuck knows damn well what Section 230 provides, his feigned ignorance notwithstanding.
Not that I’m any more a fan of Facebook’s playing to the crowd by censoring “hate speech” or political positions the unwoke find unpleasant, but that has nothing to do with Section 230. Now that it’s enacted SESTA, however, the threat of stripping away the safe harbor has teeth, and Zuck knows that can’t happen or Facebook dies.
But the entire purpose of Facebook is to make money by treating its users as the product that it sells to advertisers. Anything that impedes that is going to be extraordinarily unwelcome — and thoroughly resisted — despite Zuckerberg’s insistence to the contrary.
The senators have no clue how social media works, but Zuck does. And he knows how they work, so he tolerated their inane speeches because the last thing he wants is to let these geriatric monkeys try their hand at regulating his money machine. No matter how much we hate Facebook, we shouldn’t want them to touch it either. They don’t have a clue.