Milbank: Facebook's boy billionaire leaves the tough stuff to the grown-ups

Washington Post Writers Group
Dana Milbank

WASHINGTON — The boy billionaire needed some added stature.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg replaced his usual gray T-shirt with a blue suit for his big day before Congress, a sartorial upgrade that evoked class-photo day at school.

The slight 33-year-old, led into the cavernous Senate hearing room by a phalanx of aides, appeared momentarily confused about where to sit, until aides beckoned toward the witness table. Awaiting him on the leather chair: a four-inch-thick black foam cushion.

At least they didn't try to put him in a booster seat.

It is going to take more than some firm foam to prop up Zuckerberg. His creation, 14 years after it started in his Harvard University dorm room, has billions of users and has made Zuckerberg worth tens of billions of dollars. But it has also violated the privacy expectations of millions of people, allowed Russia to interfere in U.S. elections and promoted the spread of fake news.

Zuckerberg came prepared with one message to those who would regulate Facebook: Trust me. "I'm committed to getting this right," he promised. Problem is, whenever the questioning got tough, Zuckerberg made clear that he could not be trusted to give an answer.

How many improper data transfers to third parties have there been?

"I can have my team follow up with you."

How many fake accounts have been removed?

"I'm happy to have my team follow up with you."

Were Facebook employees involved with Cambridge Analytica's help for Donald Trump?

"I can certainly have my team get back to you."

Where do the 87 million Facebook users who had their data scraped for Cambridge Analytica come from?

"We can follow up with your office."

Zuckerberg was practically crying out for adult supervision.

Zuckerberg, of course, is no dummy. He was coached for the hearing by some of the best Washington hands money can buy. His professed ignorance, therefore, was most likely a calculation that he could avoid committing to much -- and it wouldn't come back to bite him.

He was probably right. Senators seemed as if they were less interested in regulating him than in gawking at him.

Sam Ervin's Watergate committee had seven members. The committee probing the Titanic's sinking also had seven. The Joint Committee on the Investigation of the Pearl Harbor Attack had 10.

Total number of senators on the panel to question Zuckerberg on Tuesday afternoon: 44. They had to bring in seven folding tables to seat all the senators.

When executives are hauled before Congress — automakers, bankers, tobacco or oil honchos -- it is usually under the threat of laws and subpoenas. Zuckerberg's appearance didn't have that feel. Lawmakers skipped the ritual of swearing him in. There were tough questions but relatively few threats of major legislation. For the most part, senators were asking Zuckerberg whether he would please take care of things himself.

"Many are incredibly inspired by what you've done," Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., declared, telling Zuckerberg "it's up to you" to avoid "a privacy nightmare" for Facebook users.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, put on the kid gloves, defending Facebook's business model by saying "nothing in life is free." And Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., boasted that he was the first to put his Facebook page on his business card.

Zuckerberg, high atop his cushion, returned the flattery: "Senator, I believe that's an important principle … this deserves a lot of discussion … great question … this is an important question … thank you for your leadership."

Zuckerberg read his opening statement about the data breach as it was written, including the "I'm sorry." But he was rather easier on himself when responding to questions, explaining that "it's pretty much impossible, I believe, to start a company in your dorm room … without making some mistakes."

Zuckerberg has come a long way from the dorm room, yet he still labored to play the grown-up at times Tuesday. After a break in testimony, he returned to say that his "team" told him his testimony about Cambridge Analytica had been wrong. The questioning resumed.

Zuckerberg told Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., he looked "forward to having my team following up."

He told Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., he would "have my team follow up with you."

He told Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., "I can follow up or I can have my team follow up."

When he made a similar offer to Sen. Tom Udall, the Democrat from New Mexico refused to accept it. "I'm talking about you, not your team," he told Zuckerberg.

Go easy on the kid, Senator.