Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was on Capitol Hill Wednesday to testify before the the House Financial Services Committee about Libra, Facebook’s controversial cryptocurrency plan. At least, Libra was theoretically his reason for being in Washington, DC. Once he was in the hot seat, however, lawmakers pinned him down with questions about basically everything, making clear just how much ire the ostensible social network now draws at the highest level.
The hearing, titled “An Examination of Facebook and its Impact on the Financial Services and Housing Sectors,” ran for more than five hours as representatives pressed Zuckerberg on a variety of topics. Many of the questions seemed to leave the CEO flustered as members of the committee dug in.
Among the highlights:
Committee chairwoman Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) kicked off the hearing with words that Facebook executives do not particularly like to hear.
“You have opened up a serious discussion about whether Facebook should be broken up,” Waters said, following a litany of the company’s offenses.
“Each month, 2.7 billion people use your products. That’s over a third of the world’s population. That’s huge,” Waters said. “That’s so big that it’s clear to me, and to anyone who hears this list, that perhaps you believe you’re above the law.”
That growth has victims, she added:
And it appears you’re aggressively increasing the size of your company and are willing to step on or over anyone, including your competitors, women, people of color, your own users, and even our democracy, to get what you want. All of these problems I have outlined, and given the company’s size and reach, it should be clear why we have serious concerns about your plans to establish a global digital currency that would challenge the US dollar.
Right off the bat, the plan for the Libra cryptocurrency drew “serious concerns” from regulators, who all but lined up to scrutinize its role both as a potential currency and also as a potential payment-processing system.
“I actually don’t know if Libra’s going to work,” Zuckerberg admitted to the committee during his opening remarks.
“I believe that this is something that needs to get built,” he added, “but I get that I’m not the ideal messenger for this right now. We’ve faced a lot of issues over the past few years, and I’m sure there are a lot of people who wish it were anyone Facebook who were helping to propose this.”
Zuckerberg was, if anything, understating the case, as that list of people may now include several of the original launch partners for the Libra Association. The association recently plowed ahead with its first formal meeting despite eBay, Stripe, Mastercard, and Visa all bailing on the project in a 24-hour span earlier this month.
“Facebook will not be a part of launching the Libra payment system anywhere in the world, even outside of the US, until US regulators approve,” Zuckerberg said, raising the twin possibilities that either Libra will not launch or that Facebook will not be able to be involved in its own project. “It’s a risky project and there’s been a lot of scrutiny,” he admitted, when pressed to explain why one-time participants were already dropping out. “We support Libra delaying its launch until it has fully addressed US regulatory concerns.”
The original pitch for the Libra project said the currency would improve financial services for unbanked, lower-income populations in the United States and abroad while making it easier to send money around the world more cheaply.
“Access to financial services is limited or restricted for those who need it most—those impacted by cost, reliability, and the ability to seamlessly send money,” the Libra white paper said. “All over the world, people with less money pay more for financial services.”
Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) pressed Zuckerberg on the claim that Libra would assist the un- and underbanked community, rather than line the pockets of the already wealthy.
“Libra is Facebook and Facebook is you,” she said. “I know you understand the technological and business case for Libra. You have the stats, but I’m not certain you know the stories, that you understand the source of the pain that millions are experiencing, that are experiencing underbanking and credit invisibility.”
Zuckerberg—who founded Facebook at age 20 while at Harvard and took it public in a $104 billion IPO the week of his 28th birthday—admitted to Pressley that he had no experience in his adult life with being underbanked. So she broke it down for him:
Almost two-thirds of the 1.7 billion people who don’t have bank accounts say it’s because they lack enough money to open one. So this is not about authentication. This is not about banking costs. This is about a tsunami of hurt that millions are experiencing because of a $1.6 trillion student debt crisis, rising healthcare costs, and people having to use GoFundMe to pay medical bills. This is because of the racial and gender wealth gap.
So again: You represent the power, but I don’t think you understand the pain. There’s underbanking because people are broke.
On content moderation
Facebook and Instagram between them reach literally billions of users, which means hundreds of billions of pieces of content are posted daily—many of which are deeply problematic. TFacebook’s challenges with content moderation, and the poor working conditions for the contract workers who are often traumatized by seeing the worst atrocities and behaviors that humanity can perpetuate, record, and upload, have been well-documented in reporting by The Verge (twice), The Washington Post, BuzzFeed News, and others.
Facebook seems like a great place to work, Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) told Zuckerberg, but the company doesn’t use actual full-time employees for the “hardest jobs.” She went on:
You’ve got about 15,000 contractors watching murders, stabbings, suicides, [and] other gruesome, disgusting videos for content moderation… You pay many of those workers under $30,000 a year, and you’ve cut them off from mental health care when they leave the company, even if they have PTSD of their work for your company. According to a report I have—and this is straight out of an episode of —these workers get nine minutes of supervised wellness time per day. That means nine minutes to cry in a stairwell while somebody watches them.
Would you be willing to commit to spending one hour a day, for the next year, watching these videos, acting as a content monitor, and only accessing the same benefits available to your workers?
“I’m not sure that it would best serve our community for me to spend that much time,” Zuckerberg responded, after being pressed by Porter to answer the question. “But I spend a lot of time looking at the content.”
“Are you saying you’re not qualified to be a content monitor?” Porter pressed.
“No, congresswoman, that’s not what I’m saying,” Zuckerberg replied.
“Then you say you’re not willing to do it,” Porter concluded.
On civil rights and hate speech
Several representatives pushed Zuckerberg on Facebook’s record with issues of diversity, civil rights, white supremacy, and hate speech on its platform. A line of intense questioning on civil rights from Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio) felt deeply akin to watching a student being verbally eviscerated by a professor who knows he has not done his homework and the teacher is determined to make an example of him for the class.
“Did you review the packet that was sent to you by this committee?” Beatty repeatedly pressed when she began her questioning. After Zuckerberg failed to produce a response, she answered her own question: “Obviously, that’s a no.”
“In your opening statement, you talked a lot about civil rights,” Beatty continued. “I think we should probably phrase it a little differently: that your work with civil rights work is a result of the number of lawsuits you’ve had,” she added, citing a federal suit the company faced after journalists discovered illegal race discrimination in housing-ad placement on the service.
“Let me ask you this,” Beatty added. “Do you know what redlining is?… Maybe you should have known better. If you had real diversity or inclusion on your team,” she added, “maybe the company would have known better than to permit that kind of discriminatory advertising.”
Beatty also pressed Zuckerberg to explain what actions Facebook was taking in response to an earlier civil rights audit and report. She seemed dismayed at his inability to answer to her satisfaction.
“Do you know who the firm that you employ for civil rights is?” He evidently did not. “How could you not know when you have employed the most historical, the largest civil rights firm to deal with issues that are major? And this is what’s so frustrating to me. It’s almost like you think this is a joke, when you have ruined the lives of many people, discriminated against them,” Beatty railed. “Do you know what percentage of African-Americans are on Facebook, in comparison to majority folks?”
Zuckerberg did not, and he said his company does not collect race data. But the answer, Beatty said, was in a report Zuckerberg apparently did not read or remember.
“Well, it came out from the Pew Research Center and was in a report that was sent to you,” she said. “So maybe you just don’t read a lot of things that deal with civil rights or African-Americans!”
Zuckerberg had no response.
“This is appalling and disgusting to me,” Beatty concluded, saying she would be sending a list of questions to the company for Zuckerberg to answer.
On political advertising
Facebook has come under fire in recent weeks for its seemingly inconsistent position on political speech and political advertising. The company has promised to beef up its “election integrity” efforts, including a vow to ban ads that work to suppress voter registration or turnout in some way, while also saying it will not fact-check political ads or hold politicians to its usual content standards.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) particularly focused on those issue in her questioning. “Could I pay to target predominantly black ZIP codes and advertise them the incorrect election date?” Ocasio-Cortez asked. Zuckerberg responded with a firm “no.”
“But you said you’re not going to fact-check?” she followed up.
“If anyone, including a politician, is saying things that could cause—that is calling for violence or risk imminent physical harm or voter or census suppression… we will take that content down, yes.”
“So there is some threshold where you will fact-check political advertisements? Could I run ads targeting Republicans in primaries saying that they voted for the Green New Deal?” she added, referencing her own signature, progressive policy proposal package.
Zuckerberg at first seemed not to follow the question, before responding, “I don’t know the answer to that off the top of my head. I think probably.”
“Do you see a potential problem here with the complete lack of fact-checking on political advertisements?” Ocasio-Cortez said.
“Well, congresswoman, I think lying is bad,” Zuckerberg offered. “I think if you’re gonna lie, that would be bad.” But that would be different from preventing people from “seeing that you had lied,” he tried to explain.
“So you will take down lies, or you won’t take down lies? I think this is a pretty simple yes or no,” she pressed.
“In a democracy, I believe that people should be able to see for themselves what politicians that they may or may not vote down are saying,” he answered. Any actions Facebook might take “depends on the context” in which a dishonest piece of content is posted, he added.