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What to expect from Zuckerberg if he testifies to Congress

Ethan Wolff-Mann
Senior Writer

A growing number of lawmakers are calling for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to testify in front of Congress following reports that the joint data firm founded by Stephen Bannon and funded by billionaire Robert Mercer stealthily harvested data from 50 million Facebook users.

On Wednesday evening, Zuckerberg told multiple news outlets that he was “open” and “happy” to testify in front of Congress.

It may happen. This week Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), John Kennedy (R-La.), and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) all called for Zuckerberg to answer the public’s questions surrounding Facebook and its libraries of data.

Klobuchar and Kennedy sent a bipartisan letter to Judiciary Committee Chair Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) requesting an in-person hearing in Congress. Wyden sent a letter to Zuckerberg himself on Monday, and a list of eight questions.

The bipartisan pair noted that while representatives from social media companies testified last year about Russian interference in the 2016 election, Congress has “yet to hear from the leaders of these companies directly.” During the companies’ last foray into the congressional spotlight, the CEOs of Twitter, Facebook, and Google were slammed for sending emissaries instead of showing up themselves.

“A hearing featuring testimony with CEOs would provide the Committee the opportunity to hear an update on the progress of these companies’ voluntary measures to combat attempted foreign interference and what is being done to protect Americans’ data and limit abuse of the platforms, as well as to assess what measures should be taken before the next elections,” Klobuchar and Kennedy wrote.

FILE PHOTO: Facebook Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks on stage during the annual Facebook F8 developers conference in San Jose, California, U.S., April 18, 2017. REUTERS/Stephen Lam/File Photo

A brief history of Zuckerberg under oath

Testimony from Mark Zuckerberg under oath would provide a rare opportunity for the public to hear from the world’s fifth richest person (around $70 billion) who, despite a public tour and rumors about running for office, rarely speaks frankly.

Zuckerberg, as any viewer of “The Social Network” will remember, is no stranger to depositions. The 2010 movie portrayed multiple depositions with Zuckerberg as somewhat of a difficult witness.

It is difficult to find more than a few dozen pages of deposition from Zuckerberg’s wars with the Winklevoss twins and Eduardo Saverin. But in the bits that have been made public, Zuckerberg’s testimony under-oath shows him splitting hairs and dragging his feet.

Besides cocky quotes, under-oath testimony brought out details of the founding of Facebook and bits of Zuckerberg’s worldview (“People are more voyeuristic than what I would have thought,” he said) and did succeed to pin down, somewhat, details for the record.

Since then, Zuckerberg hasn’t completely avoided taking an oath. In January 2017, he gave testimony at a trial for the first time, taking the stand for a $2 billion lawsuit filed by Zenimax over the intellectual property behind Oculus virtual reality technology. (Facebook took on Oculus’ liability when it purchased the company.)

Throughout the testimony, Zuckerberg elicited laughs from the courtroom and struck an aloof manner, according Gizmodo’s dispatch from the courtroom.

Facebook did not respond to an email asking whether those two situations were the only times Zuckerberg has been under oath.

Big CEOs sitting opposite a government of the people

Zuckerberg’s trial reports and deposition transcripts do not amount to anything close to what it would be like to have him in Congress, speaking to issues in the public interest. So perhaps it’s instructive to look at other big CEOs under oath at the Capitol.

In the tech CEO vein, Bill Gates’ combative answers to U.S. attorneys in August 1998 — see the 11 hours of footage on YouTube — could conceivably provide a clue as to what things might be like. But Zuckerberg pulling a Gates and being pedantic about the precise definitions of “operating system” or other technical jargon would probably dig his public relations hole deeper, a risk Gates’ antitrust situation didn’t particularly run.

If imagining Zuckerberg — or COO Sheryl Sandberg — testifying in Congress is tough with little to go on, more may be gleaned from lawmakers in similar positions in the past, turning on the heat and trying to sweat out answers from executives.

Let me begin my questioning on whether or not nicotine is addictive,” then-Rep. Ron Wyden of Oregon asked a panel of the most powerful tobacco CEOs, including those from Philip Morris, RJ Reynolds, and American Tobacco Company. It was 1994. “I’d like to just go down the row, whether each of you believes that nicotine is not addictive.”

One by one the seven CEOs and company presidents, under oath, told Wyden that nicotine is not addictive. Big-name testimony can include dramatic moments like that, which got the Times headline at the time, but they often unearth less flashy information: details and information that had hitherto never been said. Under penalty of perjury, the execs half admitted that cigarettes may cause cancer and other diseases and that their companies had suppressed studies that found that animals could become addicted.

Typically, there’s a mix of these two types of testimony: further scandal or further answers. Detroit’s big three auto companies taking three different private planes to Washington, in order to beg for taxpayer money for bailouts meant scandal. Equifax’s breach being caused by a lone employee furthered understanding of how that happened. Or Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) finding that only one out of four Goldman Sachs executives in 2010 said they felt a duty to act in the interests of their clients.

Sen. Wyden’s letter to Zuckerberg outlines the direction at least some of the questions would take. How many data violation incidents have there been and details? Will Facebook be identifying the users impacted? Has Facebook ever notified users of inappropriate data collection? What apps have been “audited” for bad behavior? Why wasn’t Cambridge Analytica suspended years ago? If Zuckerberg knows these things — and he likely would, as a hands-on CEO —he would be obligated to answer them.

No one will know exactly what a Zuckerberg testimony would look like, or even if we’ll see it in response to Facebook’s latest woes. According to reports, neither Zuckerberg nor Sandberg were present at the company’s Tuesday internal town hall to answer employee concerns, fueling speculation that a response was still being crafted.

On Wednesday, Zuckerberg responded via a Facebook post and gave interviewers with the media. In an interview with Recode, Zuckerberg said he was “open to [testifying in Congress] if I’m the right person.” (He is the CEO and chairman of the company). He echoed this sentiment on CNN, noting he was “happy to” if it was the “right thing to do.” He also said, “I’m not sure we shouldn’t be regulated. There are things like ad transparency regulation that I would love to see.”

Ethan Wolff-Mann is a writer at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter @ewolffmann. Confidential tip line: FinanceTips[at]oath[.com].

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