Mark Zuckerberg said he was open to the “right regulation” of Facebook but did not commit to any specifics in a disaster-free grilling on Capitol Hill that added more than $17bn to the company’s market value.
Investors responded positively to the Facebook founder’s five-hour testimony in front of a Senate committee, where lawmakers criticised the social network for how it exploits its users’ data and for the leak of information on 87m users to the research firm Cambridge Analytica.
Facebook shares have been battered by concern that a string of controversies could tempt lawmakers to introduce profit-crimping regulation, but they rose throughout Mr Zuckerberg’s testimony and ended up 4.5 per cent.
Mr Zuckerberg told senators he agreed that “we have a broader responsibility than what the law requires” to police the platform.
He said he was not opposed to Congress introducing new laws to govern the company, but fended off attempts to pin him down on details and dodged a request to publicly advocate for one proposed bill.
“Our position is not that regulation is bad,” Mr Zuckerberg said. “Our question is what is the right framework, not whether there should be one.”
Facing persistent questions over the ethics of Facebook monetising users’ personal information, Mr Zuckerberg also left the door open to creating a paid form of Facebook with no ads, saying: “There will always be a version of Facebook that is free.”
Chuck Grassley, the Republican chairman of the judiciary committee, said many Facebook users still did not understand the extent to which their personal information was “collected, protected, transferred, used and misused”.
“At a minimum, consumers must have the transparency necessary to make an informed decision about whether to share their data and how it will be used,” Mr Grassley said. “The status quo no longer works.”
John Kennedy, a Republican senator, put it more bluntly. “Your user agreement sucks,” he said.
Mr Kennedy, who advised Facebook to rewrite its user agreement in plain language, told Mr Zuckerberg: “There’s going to be whole lot of bills introduced to regulate Facebook. It’s up to you to decide whether they pass.”
Quizzed by Ed Markey, a Democrat, over a bill that would require any company that gathers personal data to secure explicit consumer permission to reuse it, Mr Zuckerberg said: “In principle that makes sense — and the details matter.”
The Facebook founder also had reasonably warm words for Europe’s new rules on data privacy, known as the General Data Protection Regulation. “I think that [Europeans] get things right,” he said, while noting that “we have somewhat different sensibilities in the US”.
Several Republicans put forward reasons to be cautious about new regulation, warning that it could turn into a barrier to entry that prevents start-ups from challenging incumbents with more resources to comply.
Mr Zuckerberg concurred. “I agree with the point that when you’re thinking through regulation, across all industries, you need to be careful it doesn’t cement in the current companies that are winning.”
Facebook has unveiled a barrage of initiatives designed to show Mr Zuckerberg is already addressing public and political concerns, and more carefully considering the implications of new features. In its latest reform, announced just hours before the hearing, Facebook said it was introducing a “data abuse bounty” programme to reward people who report any misuse of data by app developers.
Asked by John Cornyn, a Republican, about Facebook’s erstwhile “move fast and break things” motto, Mr Zuckerberg elicited laughter from the room by saying: “Our current motto is move fast with stable infrastructure.”
Beyond privacy, senators also raised issues of free speech and Russian meddling in US elections. “One of my greatest regrets in running the company is that we were slow in identifying the Russian information operations in 2016,” Mr Zuckerberg said.
His testimony offered a muddled answer to questions about Facebook’s contact with special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating whether Donald Trump’s presidential campaign colluded with Russians.
The company was “working with” Mr Mueller, Mr Zuckerberg said. “I actually am not aware of a subpoena. I believe that there may be”.
Facebook has done a U-turn in recent days by saying it now backs the Honest Ads Act, a narrow piece of legislation that would require tech groups to reveal more about the origins of political ads. Mr Zuckerberg, however, declined to pledge to lobby for it.
As Lindsey Graham, a Republican, suggested consumers had no alternative to Facebook, Mr Zuckerberg said: “The average American uses eight different apps to communicate with their friends and stay in touch with people. Ranging from texting apps to email.”
Asked whether Facebook had a monopoly, Mr Zuckerberg said: “It certainly doesn’t feel like that to me.”
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