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Facebook CEO Faced Lawmakers' Questions About Trustworthiness


Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was on Capitol Hill yesterday to defend his company's plans for a new digital currency. But lawmakers grilled Zuckerberg on, well, everything - corporate ethics, also Facebook's track record on privacy, its attitude toward diversity and hiring and also the company's seeming inability to halt the spread of misinformation.

This is Democrat Maxine Waters, who chairs the House Financial Services Committee.


MAXINE WATERS: Perhaps you believe that you're above the law, and it appears that 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.

GREENE: Now, before we go on, just a disclosure here. Facebook is among NPR's financial supporters.

I want to bring in Kate Klonick. She's a law professor focused on Internet law and information privacy at St. John's University Law School in New York. Currently, she is independently documenting Facebook's efforts to create a new internal oversight board. Welcome to the program.

KATE KLONICK: Thank you for having me.

GREENE: So Zuckerberg acknowledged yesterday before lawmakers that Facebook has a trust problem and also that he's not the ideal messenger to build trust. Do you think he helped Facebook's cause?

KLONICK: He stood up relatively well, I think better than most people expected. But it was also a headier and more centralized showing of questioning than we've seen before from Congress. So that was a huge improvement, I think, in terms of our representatives asking him good questions from April 2018, for instance, the last time he was in the Senate.

GREENE: You're saying the fact that he survived this grilling is at least a good sign for him and the company.

KLONICK: Yeah. And I think that, like, you're hearing - basically, a lot of the chatter that's coming out of this is that he survived the grilling, and he held up. And he didn't - there were no huge gaffes. There were no huge moments. There have been a few great kind of clips that have been coming out of it of his questioning on civil rights, his questioning on political ads. But more or less, he avoided saying anything that was really damning to Facebook.

GREENE: Well, let me ask you about this cryptocurrency. I mean, it's one thing that Facebook uses to argue that the company is there to serve people - I mean, provide a platform for free speech, yeah, and also provide a cryptocurrency for people without bank accounts. But lawmakers were saying that the record is very different, that Facebook has been accused of contributing, for example, to housing discrimination. I mean, what does the company's behavior reflect in your mind?

KLONICK: Yeah. So the behavior that - there is a lot of things that were invoked about the currency, but also about free speech. And as you said at the intro, this was a grab bag of topics against Facebook. It was supposed to be about Libra, and it was just not about Libra. There was probably...

GREENE: The new cryptocurrency, yeah.

KLONICK: Right, exactly. It was not about the new cryptocurrency. It was about everything under the sun that had to do with Facebook. And I think, rightfully so, people really want answers right now. And this was the first kind of moment that they had to get them.

But to your question about trust for the company, I think that this is part of the reason that Facebook is really working really hard on building this oversight board, which is the new kind of - the new board that is trying to create user accountability for people to talk back to Facebook and to appeal their content and to really take on new policy changes in there and what they decide to keep up and take down. So that's, I think, the best hope for Facebook gaining trust because he's completely correct. It's not going to come from Zuckerberg.

GREENE: And we should say that's the project you're working on. But I just want to ask you about the fundamental argument of lawmakers and others, which is that this company is huge and influential. And that means it has responsibilities in a democracy and in society. Does Zuckerberg accept that?

KLONICK: Oh, yes. I mean, I actually think that that might be something that he is just really acutely aware of. I don't know whether that's - you know, what his ends are towards that. But I think that he accepts how much Facebook has played a role. And I think he personally feels bad about it. But I, you know, I don't know if that's good enough.

GREENE: Why doesn't that come across? Why does he continue to not - even himself say he's not the perfect messenger?

KLONICK: Yeah, I don't know. I think that there's - I think it's really hard. I think that Facebook's, you know, so large right now and has so many messages. And I think that, like, it's very difficult for him to be the one person that stands up. And I don't think that people really - you know, I think he's just a punching bag for a lot of things that are happening right now in tech.

GREENE: Kate Klonick is a law professor focused on Internet law and information privacy at St. John's University Law School. Thanks so much.

KLONICK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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