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Mark Zuckerberg gets special coaching for gruelling Congress hearing on Facebook data breach

The 33-year-old worth $64bn will appear over two days

Andrew Buncombe
New York
Monday 09 April 2018 17:51
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Cambridge Analytica: Mark Zuckerberg enters Capitol Hill to speak with lawmakers

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has been receiving special coaching on how to present himself when he appears before US politicians demanding to know what he is doing to protect users’ data, and how Russia was able to use his platform to allegedly meddle in the 2016 presidential election.

Amid continuing controversy over the inappropriate harvesting of the data of up to 87 million Facebook users by British political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, Mr Zuckerberg will try and reassure Congress he is taking the concerns of them and the general public seriously. He will also try to deflect the efforts of those who favour more stringent government regulation.

“It’s clear now that we didn’t do enough to prevent these tools from being used for harm,” he is expected to tell the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, according to written testimony released ahead of his appearance.

“We didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibility, and that was a big mistake. It was my mistake, and I’m sorry. I started Facebook, I run it, and I’m responsible for what happens here.”

The 33-year-old head of a company valued at $80bn (£56.6bn) does not face an easy task. The normally discreet Mr Zuckerberg, who tends to shy away from the cameras, will be making his first appearance before politicians at at time when public criticism of large technology firms appears to be mounting.

The New York Times said the man, who typically dresses for work in a grey T-shirt, has hired a team from the law firm WilmerHale, along with outside consultants, to coach him on the kinds of questions politicians may ask, and on how to react if his answers are interrupted. Facebook has also set up mock hearings involving its communications team and outside advisers, who role-play members of Congress.

“For every major CEO, and now for Mark Zuckerberg, this is a rite of passage,” Reed Hundt, a former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, told the newspaper. “Facebook has become so important – not just to business but to society – it can’t avoid having to run the congressional gantlet.”

Mr Zuckerberg, who is set to appear before the Senate commerce and judiciary committees on Tuesday and the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday, has already been laying the groundwork of trying to present his company as one that listens to public concerns.

Last week Mr Zuckerberg, who did not bother to graduate from Harvard University, held a rare conference call with reporters during which he said the failure to understand how his platform’s tools could be misused was a “huge mistake”.

“With respect to getting our systems under control, a couple of weeks ago I announced that we were going to do a full investigation of every app that had a large amount of people’s data before we locked down the platform, and that we’d make further changes to restrict the data access that developers could get,” he said.

He also appeared on CNN, saying of the obtaining of users’ data by Cambridge Analytica: “This was a major breach of trust, and I’m really sorry that this happened.”

On Monday, Mr Zuckerberg went to meet with some of the politicians who will be questioning him, and announced the company was establishing “an independent election research commission that will solicit research on the effects of social media on elections and democracy”.

Mark Zuckerberg admits ‘my mistake’ as 87m Facebook users could have seen data accessed by Cambridge Analytica

As part of its PR offensive, Facebook also deployed its chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, who told National Public Radio it was speaking with regulators around the world and insisted it was aware of public sentiment.

“We’ve always had a deep responsibility for people, but at our size and scope, with billions of people using our products, we have a very deep responsibility,” she said.

Ahead of his appearance, many reports have speculated over the sort of questions Mr Zuckerberg will face. Among them will be answering why anyone should trust him with their data, how many users’ data may be in the hands of Russian hackers, why there should not be greater government regulation and why the company failed to act more quickly when it became aware its data was being misused.

As far back as 2015, there were reports that Senator Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign was using psychological data from Cambridge Analytica that had been taken from Facebook users without their knowledge.

Amy Webb, a technology forecaster and adjunct professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, said appearances on Capitol Hill, before politicians seeking to respond to public concern, were part of a ritual of American political and public life.

She told The Independent that while Mr Zuckerberg may be taking lessons on how appear to appear contrite and charming, the company’s main concern now was to get ahead of the curve for anticipating and actually writing government regulations for the industry.

“The thing that matters most to Facebook is that it wants to write the regulation and compliance going forward,” she said.

She said it was able to do so, because the company, which spent around $12m on lobbying in 2017, moved much more quickly than politicians were either capable of, or wished to.

She pointed to legislation passed last week by the Maryland legislature regulating political adverts on Facebook and other social media sites, which the company played a major role in writing.

Facebook officials have since said they hoped the modest legislation – which requires companies to disclose who is paying for political advertising, whom they benefit and how much was spent – can set an example for other states.

The Baltimore Sun quoted Will Castleberry, a lobbyist who serves as Facebook’s vice-president for state policy in Maryland. He said in a statement the company helped draft the legislation and “looks forward to implementing it”.

“We believe this bill will be a national model for the other 49 states to follow,” he said. Mr Castleberry did not immediately respond to enquiries about why he felt it was appropriate for Facebook to help write legislation intended to regulate the company.

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