Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg fended off questions on election interference, free speech, hate groups and fake news during a six-hour appearance before a US congressional hearing on the company’s planned digital currency.
- The Facebook CEO said the company’s digital currency would lower the cost of electronic payments
- But politicians were sceptical of the company’s history of scandals
- Mr Zuckerberg acknowledged Libra was a ‘risky project’
Republican and Democratic politicians alike blasted Facebook for failing to crack down on online child exploitation and political misinformation, and for data-privacy lapses, during the House of Representatives Financial Services Committee hearing.
Mr Zuckerberg sought to reassure them the company’s planned digital currency, Libra, would lower the cost of electronic payments and open up the global financial system to more people.
Several said they did not trust Facebook to help provide financial services to its 2.4 billion users given the company’s past scandals.
Politicians including Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez used the occasion to question the trustworthiness of the world’s largest social network.
Ms Ocasio-Cortez peppered Mr Zuckerberg with questions about the Cambridge Analytica scandal and Facebook’s decision not to fact-check political ads, asking if she ran ads with lies about her political opponents’ voting behaviour, would they be taken down.
“Would I be able to run advertisements on Facebook targeting Republicans in primaries, saying that they voted for the green new deal?” Ms Ocasio-Cortez asked.
“If you’re not fact-checking political advertisements I’m just trying to understand the bounds here.”
“I don’t know the answer of that off the top of my head, I think probably,” Mr Zuckerberg responded.
“So you don’t know if I’ll be able to do that?” she said.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez questioned Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg about political advertising on the social network. (AP: Andrew Harnik)
Mr Zuckerberg said posts calling for violence or those which posed “imminent risk of harm” would be removed, but he did not clearly state whether political ads with “outright lies” would be taken down.
“I believe that in a democracy, people should be able to see for themselves what politicians that they may or may not vote for are saying so they can judge their character for themselves,” Mr Zuckerberg said.
Zuckerberg pushes for support of ‘risky project’
During the hearing, Mr Zuckerberg acknowledged Facebook’s past mistakes, saying he understood the social media giant was not the “ideal messenger” for the Libra project and that the company had “work to do to build trust”.
But he said past missteps should not stand in the way of Libra.
“The vision here is to make it so that people can send money to each other as easily and cheaply as it is sending a text message,” he said.
But Mr Zuckerberg was unable to make material commitments on behalf of Libra because Facebook no longer controls the project, sometimes to the frustration of the members of Congress.
He said Facebook would insist on US regulatory approval before launching Libra, which was being established by a Switzerland-based consortium including venture capital firms and non-profits.
He said Facebook would even leave the Libra Association if other companies sought to launch the currency without that sign-off.
Libra has faltered in recent weeks amid sustained criticism from politicians and regulators globally over fears it may aid money laundering and upend the global financial system.
Several financial partners including Mastercard, Visa, PayPal and eBay have abandoned the project.
Republican Ann Wagner pressed Mr Zuckerberg on why so many companies abandoned the Libra effort.
“You’ve lost these stable partners and I find it highly concerning,” she said.
“Why do a number of these founding members have concerns of whether you’re up to the task of meeting our money-laundering and regulatory standards?”
The 35-year old Facebook CEO conceded those companies dropped out because Libra was a “risky project” and that he was not sure it would even work.
During his testimony, the price of bitcoin versus the US dollar tumbled to a five-month low.
Doubts expressed about Libra
Politicians did not hold back in their harsh criticism of Facebook’s data practices and doubts about Libra in particular.
“Facebook’s internal model was for a long time ‘Move fast and break things’. Mr Zuckerberg, we do not want to break the international monetary system,” said Democrat Nydia Velazquez.
Representative Maxine Waters, the panel’s Democratic chair, quizzed Mr Zuckerberg on Facebook’s steps to combat misinformation and voter suppression ahead of the November 2020 US presidential election.
She also suggested policymakers should consider breaking up Facebook.
Ms Waters had previously called for halting the Libra project before its planned 2020 launch, and has drafted legislation that would bar tech companies from entering financial services.
“It would be beneficial for all if Facebook concentrates on addressing its many existing deficiencies and failures before proceeding any further on the Libra project,” Ms Waters told Mr Zuckerberg two days after Facebook disclosed it had removed a network of Russian accounts targeting US voters on its Instagram platform.
Some Republicans did offer support for Mr Zuckerberg and the Libra project, arguing the Government should not stop the private sector from innovating.
“I have my own qualms about Facebook and Libra and the shortcomings of Big Tech,” said Republican Patrick McHenry.
“But if history has taught us anything, it’s better to be on the side of American innovation.”