A wary Facebook founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg yesterday faced robust grilling by the US House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee, with representatives repeatedly pressing him on privacy concerns.
"We have changed a lot of the way our platform works so that developers can't get access to as much information," he insisted.
New features based on General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) requirements agreed by the European Parliament in April 2016 would be applied for users globally, he pledged. Among other things, the GDPR requires clear and easily understood user consent agreements.
"We believe everyone around the world deserves good privacy controls," Mr Zuckerberg said. "We have had a lot of these controls in place for years. The GDPR requires us to do a few more things and we are going to extend that to the world.
"We are going to put at the top of everyone's app, when they sign in, a tool that walks people through the settings and gives people the choices and asks them to make decisions on how they want their settings set."
Yesterday was the second day of hearings for the 33-year-old. At the hearing in front of Senate committees on Tuesday, he deflected criticism and hard questions, and acknowledged that he was not against regulation.
He was respectful and contrite at both hearings, taking full responsibility for the social media giant's failure to protect the data of around 87 million people in the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
Senators drove home their concerns over privacy. Democratic Senator Dick Durbin asked if Mr Zuckerberg would be comfortable sharing the name of the hotel where he stayed the previous night. Mr Zuckerberg looked uncomfortable and responded: "Uh, um, no."
The senators, from the judiciary and commerce committees, established that Facebook failed to inform affected users in 2015 even after becoming aware of the data security breach. Mr Zuckerberg said Facebook had demanded the data be deleted and, when informed by Britain-based Cambridge Analytica that it had done so, considered the case closed.
Tuesday's hearing also found that Facebook had detected Russian activity aimed at influencing the US presidential election in 2016. Mr Zuckerberg likened Russian interference to an "arms race" with constant attempts to infiltrate societies through social media networks.
"There are people in Russia whose job is to exploit our systems," he said. "This is an arms race. They are going to keep getting better."
Mr Zuckerberg also outlined the steps Facebook was taking to make user data more secure, and spot and move against hate speech and propaganda. They included hiring more staff for data security, more detailed background checks on advertisers and developing artificial intelligence (AI) tools to detect propaganda and hate speech.
But he acknowledged that AI tools were limited currently, particularly with respect to hate speech as that required language skills.
Mr Zuckerberg pushed back against any notion that Facebook is a monopoly and may be broken up, saying that would lead to the loss of the innovation edge and end up favouring competition from China.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said: "One way to regulate a company is through competition, through government regulation. What do we tell our constituents, given what has happened here, why we should let you self-regulate?"
Mr Zuckerberg replied: "My po-sition is not that there should be no regulation.
"I think the real question, as the Internet becomes more important in people's lives, is what is the right regulation, not whether there should be or not."
When pressed about whether Facebook would welcome regulation, Mr Zuckerberg said: "If it is the right regulation, then yes."
Senator Amy Klobuchar, a De-mocrat, told CNN afterwards: "We are going to need rules for data breaches. You are going to see some legislation."
At times during Tuesday's hearing, senators seemed to struggle to understand the technicalities of the social media platform. At one point, Republican Senator Orrin Hatch asked: "How do you sustain a business model in which users don't pay for your service?"
"Senator, we run ads," Mr Zuckerberg replied.
"Clearly, there are very few members of those committees or of Congress who even understand what Facebook is," Professor Sanford Ungar, director of the Free Speech Project at Georgetown University, told The Straits Times.
"For them, it is a little like questioning a visitor from outer space, who looks normal, sounds normal, walks and talks normally, but they don't really know what he does or how he got so rich."
Mr Zuckerberg started the company in his dorm room at Harvard when he was 19. Facebook now has two billion users globally. His net worth is reckoned to be in the region of US$63.2 billion (S$83 billion).
Top 5 revelations from hearing
1 Facebook learnt of Russian intervention as early as 2016
Asked when Facebook had learnt of Russian influence operations on Facebook, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said: "Right around the time of the 2016 election itself."
This contradicts earlier statements. Facebook has long maintained that it did not learn about how Russian agents had used its platform to influence the presidential election until the summer of 2017.
While Mr Alex Stamos, Facebook's chief information officer, warned the company that Russian hackers may have been active on the platform in the summer of 2016, he has said he was looking at cyber-security breaches, not disinformation campaigns tied to the elections.
Tuesday was the first time that Mr Zuckerberg cited 2016 as the date when the firm identified new operations linked to the election.
Mr Zuckerberg also said his company is in a constant battle with Russian operators seeking to exploit the social network.
"This is an arms race. They are going to keep getting better," he said.
He also revealed that Mr Robert Mueller, the US special counsel investigating alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 election, had interviewed Facebook staff.
2 Regulation is coming
"It would be difficult for members of Congress to tell their constituents we trust Facebook to continue to self-regulate given the problems we have seen," Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, said after the hearing. Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota, also was not swayed by Mr Zuckerberg's goal to self-police. "We are going to have to do privacy legislation now," she said, after noting his apology and stated efforts to hire more people to protect user data.
3 Facebook's antitrust rebuttal revealed
Mr Zuckerberg was prepared to cite competition with China if asked whether the social media giant should be broken up, according to a photograph of internal notes the chief executive officer took to a congressional hearing on Tuesday.
"Break Up FB? US tech companies key asset for America; break-up strengthens Chinese companies," the document read, according to a picture published by the Associated Press.
4 Paid version of Facebook in the offing?
Mr Zuckerberg made an intriguing comment that suggested Facebook could, in theory, offer a paid version, presumably to users who do not want ads or to share certain data with Facebook.
He said: "There will always be a version of Facebook that will be free."
This suggests that Facebook has begun to think about how it can adapt to a situation in which it gets access to less data from users. In other words, it may be taking a threat to its business model seriously.
5 Not all senators know their stuff
Mr Zuckerberg insisted on Tuesday that there would always be a free version of Facebook, so that anyone in the world can afford to be part of its online community.
At that point, Sentor Orrin Hatch, the Utah Republican, asked Mr Zuckerberg how he could sustain a business without charging anything for it.
"Sir, we run ads," Mr Zuckerberg explained.
Mr Hatch replied: "I see."
NYTIMES, BLOOMBERG, REUTERS