So Mark Zuckerberg went up to Capitol Hill this week, and while he didn’t storm and loot and pillage the place, he pretty much won whatever misconceived battles the House and Senate wished to wage against him and Facebook.
The sheer number of supposed offenses against freedom and speech and decency and charity and democracy and holiness that have been laid at Facebook’s virtual doorstep practically demanded that Zuckerberg appear before Congress sweaty and shaking like Martin Short’s Nathan Thurm on a long-ago “Saturday Night Live” sketch about a corporate spokesman whose only response to Mike Wallace’s tough questioning was, “Who said that? I never said that. YOU said that.”
Instead, he came across as Earnest Nerd, speaking in an overly articulated voice and a from-nowhere accent that made him sound like Marvin the Martian from a Bugs Bunny cartoon. He said he was sorry that people’s personal data had been stolen, and when members pointed out he’d been apologizing for that sort of thing for 14 years, he said he was sorry again.
Members of Congress came at him on privacy matters but almost no one could keep straight what it is Facebook actually does to endanger anyone’s privacy. Rep. Larry Buchson complained that his son said he and his friends were just talking about suits on their phones and the next day they were served ads on the Internet about suits and was this something Facebook was responsible for?
“No, we don’t listen in on anyone’s phone,” Zuckerberg said, and Buchson said that was good, he was glad to hear it, because this listening-in stuff is just terrible.
Since he didn’t come across as villainous in any way, and since he offered not a glimpse of the almost-cosmic arrogance that his media and journalistic critics suggest is the truest part of his soul, Zuckerberg stymied any attempts by hostile liberal members of Congress to paint him as the Puppeteer of the Stolen Election of 2016.
And since he explicitly told Sen. Ted Cruz he was worried that Silicon Valley was too leftist, Zuckerberg also failed to fill the role of Silencer of Conservatives that the right wanted him to occupy.
Indeed, the stars of the two hearings weren’t the questioners of Zuckerberg, but the Trump-supporting African-American pseudo-media personalities Diamond and Silk, whose names were invoked repeatedly over the two days like a callback in an improv-comedy sketch.
Rep. Joe Barton: “Mr. Zuckerberg, why is Facebook censoring conservative bloggers such as Diamond and Silk?”
Rep. Marsha Blackburn, after Zuckerberg made the point that Facebook monitors content to ensure terrorist propaganda isn’t promulgated on the site: “Let me tell you something right now. Diamond and Silk is not terrorism!”
Finally, the seriously delightful Rep. Billy Long held up a cardboard poster and asked Zuckerberg if he knew who the two women on the poster were.
And — scene!
The conduct of the hearings — the questions asked, the comportment of the members of Congress, the rushed nature of the individual inquiries — basically handed every advantage to Zuckerberg.
And, no dummy he, Zuckerberg gracefully swung at each softball lobbed at him and hit it a clean stroke between first and second. And mostly he sat still and let the wilder pitches pass him by harmlessly.
He even gave the game away a bit when members of Congress threatened him with some form of legal oversight. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, who never met a congressionally imposed rule she wouldn’t marry, told Zuckerberg that “self-regulation does not work.” Various senators had done the same the day before.
Rather eagerly, Zuckerberg said he would be open to regulation if that’s what it took to restore confidence in Facebook. A couple of senators even asked him to help them draft the regulations.
Of course he would be open to it! History tells us repeatedly how certain types of businesses will gladly assent to congressional limits on their complete freedom because the rules that are imposed will often work to cement their dominant position and impose undue burdens on rising companies that might do what they do better.
We call this “regulatory capture,” and I’d bet so do Zuckerberg and his staff in late-night private sessions that are surely a good deal more interesting and serious — and scary — than the paper-tiger efforts by our third-rate legislators who couldn’t lay so much as a glove on the guy.