The bad thing about making your face synonymous with the company you run: When you go M.I.A., everyone tends to notice.
The callout posts began over the weekend. Normal Facebook users don’t always track the tech press outrage cycle, but a flurry of reporting on Facebook’s mishandling of the private data of 50 million users, and Facebook’s subsequent mishandling of that mishandling — this after everything else — it seemed to stick in their craw.
Worse yet for Facebook, lawmakers that they’d already pissed off were happy to circle back for a second round after the company weaseled out of the first one. By Monday, a few angry, constituent-rousing tweets had snowballed into the kind of itemized list of questions that comes with a due date.
Congress is mad. And it might be as mad about this poorly handled Cambridge Analytica debacle as it is about getting stood up the last time around. Without any kind of public statement from one of the faces of the company, Facebook users are starting to feel stood up too.
Where in the world is… anyone?
Where does that leave Facebook leadership? So far, it’s nowhere to be found. No semi-intelligible non-apology calling to bring the world closer, if only we could, from Zuck. No lukewarm screed from Sandberg addressing a tertiary and much safer company concern. No nothing.
Ever since Facebook scooped The New York Times’ story on its company blog — “after a week of inquiries from The Times, Facebook downplayed the scope of the leak and questioned whether any of the data still remained out of its control. But on Friday, the company posted a statement expressing alarm and promising to take action…” — the most vocal company statements have come from Facebook Deputy General Counsel Paul Grewal and the potentially outgoing head of information security Alex Stamos. It goes without saying that having a lawyer and the noble hacker guy who tried to quit out in front is not the most flattering look for a company so synonymous with its leadership team, namely Zuckerberg and Sandberg.
Sandberg specifically was named in a damning bit of The New York Times story on Stamos’s near rage-quit. That portion described how, according to sources, Stamos advocated for an aggressive investigation into Facebook’s Russia headache to the “consternation” of Facebook executives. Sandberg was the only named executive. That language has since been softened, describing how Stamos and Sandberg “disagreed early on over how proactive the social network should be in policing its own platform” but calling their relationship “productive.”
Zuckerberg and Sandberg did not attend a Tuesday town hall on the issue (nor were they scheduled to, as The Verge reported), and that’s apparently left employees wondering where their fearless leadership has gone.
Facebook’s feet to the fire: Round one recap
Late last year, Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch joined lawyers from Twitter and Google to testify on the role the platform may have played in spreading viral disinformation during the 2016 election.
In a trio of public hearings, members of the Senate Judiciary and Senate and House Intel committees raked Facebook’s legal stunt double over the coals, occasionally tossing a question to Twitter or Google. It was a lot of careful lawyerspeak and a handful of cooperative gestures with no actual legislative buy-in. No one much was surprised.
The spiciest moments came when Senator Amy Klobuchar got Facebook counsel to admit that, if left unregulated, there would be no one to make them accountable for their actions. Stretch could only agree.
Facebook alone in the hot seat
This time around, Facebook might not clamber out of the hot water so easily. While the company had ample cover last time thanks to Google and Twitter’s twin implications in the controversy over Russian-bought political ads targeting U.S. voters, this time Facebook stands alone. The revelation that Facebook data on as many as 50 million users appears to have made its way into a political data operation with no consent from users is Facebook’s burden to bear alone.
Congress has legitimate interest in protecting users subject to the ad revenue-driven whims of a supposedly self-regulating tech platform, and, unfortunately for Facebook, big tech regulation is starting to look like something most people can get behind. The calls to get Zuckerberg under oath before Congress are picking up steam across at least three major congressional committees, not to mention the FTC and Parliament in the U.K.
Senate Judiciary Committee
Senator Amy Klobuchar kicked off the Zuckerhunt over the weekend. Now, she’s flanked by colleagues on both sides of the aisle.
“The last time we had a hearing, Google and Twitter and Facebook sent their lawyers, which undoubtedly were expensive because they did a damn fine job of dodging and bobbing and weaving and they didn’t say a damn thing – which is what they were paid to do, or not to do, as the case may be,” Republican Senator John Kennedy told Politico. “This time, I hope the principals come and we can have a frank discussion.”
On Tuesday, Senate Judiciary ranking Democrat Dianne Feinstein joined lawmakers calling for Zuckerberg himself to testify.
Senate Commerce Committee
On Monday, Republican Commerce Chairman John Thune joined Senators Roger Wicker and Jerry Moran to assert its jurisdiction over data privacy and consumer protection issues at the fore of the Cambridge Analytica conversation. The committee will weigh Zuckerberg’s response to a letter it sent in deciding to summon him to testify.
“Mark Zuckerberg ought to be subpoenaed if he doesn’t appear voluntarily, to appear under oath, in public, along with other CEOs in the same space,” Senator Richard Blumenthal told reporters on Monday night.
Senate Intelligence Committee
On Tuesday morning, the ranking Democrat on the powerful Senate Intelligence Committee also called for Zuckerberg to take the stand. Mark Warner, a vocal critic of Facebook’s initial response to the Russian ads revelations, isn’t one to let the company off the hook.
Before Warner’s call, Senate Intel member Ron Wyden — one of the biggest privacy advocates in Congress — issued a letter to Zuckerberg seeking answers on a number of detailed points on Monday, including how many privacy audits the company has conducted for apps on its platform and if Facebook has ever notified individual users of privacy violations of this nature. It’s likely that Wyden, who issued Facebook an April 13 deadline for his questions, supports Warner’s zeal for getting Zuck under oath.
Senate Intel chairman Richard Burr has yet to demand Zuckerberg’s appearance.
The bipartisan calls for accountability have been fast and firm. Unfortunately for Facebook, being mad at Facebook is something that brings people together — perhaps another unforeseen risk of building the world’s biggest social network.