Facebook’s Zuckerberg, Accused of Lying, Withstands a Washington ‘Beating’

WASHINGTON — Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook chief executive, traveled to Washington to defend a cryptocurrency project that has become the latest target of lawmakers frustrated with the social media giant.

He ended up answering a smorgasbord of questions on other issues on Wednesday, as members of the House Financial Services Committee took him to task for everything from political advertising and disinformation campaigns to work force diversity and child pornography.

Representative Maxine Waters, the Democratic committee chairwoman, set the tone of the hearing early. She grilled Mr. Zuckerberg on Facebook’s willingness to allow unfettered speech across the platform and its recent decision to avoid vetting political advertising.

“The impact of this will be a massive voter suppression effort. Your claim to promote freedom of speech does not ring true,” Ms. Waters said.

In recent months lawmakers have spared neither Facebook nor Mr. Zuckerberg. On Wednesday, that criticism became more than five hours of political theater, making it glaringly apparent just how skeptical of Facebook Congress has become through nearly three years of controversy.

The company now faces several investigations by regulators in a number of countries and by 47 state attorneys general, as well as increasing calls that it should be broken up into a number of smaller, less powerful companies.

Mr. Zuckerberg acknowledged his company has a trust problem. “I get that I’m not the ideal messenger for this right now,” he said. “We certainly have work to do to build trust.”

Despite occasional stumbles, Mr. Zuckerberg, accompanied by a nearly full front row of Facebook lawyers, top lobbyists and public relations executives, stayed calm under the harsh questioning. He did what he was supposed to do as the chief executive of a big company called to heel in Washington. He took the heat.

Mr. Zuckerberg still brightened when the grab-bag discussion veered into the technical details of Libra.

While presenting a rosy view of how the cryptocurrency would provide a safe way for billions of people around the world without bank accounts to exchange money affordably, he pledged Facebook would not offer Libra anywhere in the world “unless all U.S. regulators approve it.”

Committee members questioned whether Facebook executives can be taken at their word.

Representative Nydia M. Velázquez, a Democrat from New York, pointed to Facebook’s promise in its acquisition of WhatsApp in 2014 to keep the messaging app separate from the main Facebook platform. A few years later, Mr. Zuckerberg announced it would merge data between the two apps.

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“Do you understand why this record makes us concerned with Facebook entering the cryptocurrency space? Have you learned that you should not lie?” Ms. Velázquez said.

“Congresswoman, I would disagree with the characterization,” he said before getting cut off by further questions.

Representatives homed in on issues of national security, and the ways that bad actors have used cryptocurrencies to pursue illicit activity.

“You’re creating a whole new currency, which could be anonymous, that could create a whole new threat to Americans and national security, which is a huge concern,” said Representative Carolyn Maloney, Democrat of New York.

Representative Ann Wagner, a Republican from Missouri, said she was troubled by Facebook’s history of dealing with child pornography on the site. The company has reported discovering millions of exploitative images and videos.

“You are not working hard enough, and end-to-end encryption is not going to help the problem,” Ms. Wagner said.

Mr. Zuckerberg acknowledged the difficulties of policing a global platform, but was defensive as he was challenged on his company’s ability to respond to the proliferation of images on it.

”We work harder than any other company to identify this behavior,” Mr. Zuckerberg said.

Representative Rashida Tlaib, Democrat of Michigan, clashed with Mr. Zuckerberg on Facebook’s desire not to fact-check political campaign advertising.

Ms. Tlaib said the practice had resulted in widespread hate-mongering and a flurry of false information about her, personally. “It is hate speech, it’s hate, and it’s leading to violence and death threats in my office,” she said.

And in a particularly intense round of questioning, Representative Joyce Beatty, Democrat of Ohio, said she found Facebook’s track record on issues of diversity and inclusion at the company “appalling and disgusting.”

Republican members of the committee were generally more supportive of Mr. Zuckerberg. Representative Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, the top-ranking Republican, said that Democrats were going too far in trying to rein in new technology like Libra.

“American innovation is on trial today in this hearing,” Mr. McHenry said.

Mr. Zuckerberg spoke to that point, saying if American regulators managed to stop Libra, it would help countries like China develop their own cryptocurrency projects — efforts that could hurt the United States and the dominant role of the dollar.

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“While we debate these issues, the rest of the world isn’t waiting,” Mr. Zuckerberg said. “If America doesn’t innovate, our financial leadership isn’t guaranteed.”

A torrent of criticism has been directed toward Facebook’s cryptocurrency effort since it was announced in June. But Mr. Zuckerberg, who is personally fascinated by cryptocurrencies, is committed to the project.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, was one of Mr. Zuckerberg’s harshest questioners, more than five hours into the session. She said that in order to make decisions about Libra, “I think we need to dig into your past behavior.” She asked him about his recent outreach to conservative news outlets. “Do you see a potential problem here with a complete lack of fact-checking on political advertisements?”

Mr. Zuckerberg replied: “In a democracy, I believe that people should be able to see for themselves what politicians are saying, and judge their character for themselves,” he said.

In the week before the hearing, Facebook officials have tried courting regulators and lawmakers, and recently Mr. Zuckerberg has been defending the social network in Washington more assertively.

Facebook has one of the biggest influence operations in Washington and has fortified its lobbying. It now works with 60 internal and contract lobbyists, about twice the number it had in 2016.

The company is on track to spend $12.3 million to lobby the federal government in the first nine months of the year, compared with $12.6 million for all of last year, according to public filings.

The financial industry and tech companies are growing increasingly leery of the cryptocurrency project. Facebook originally brought on 27 partners to join a Libra Association in Switzerland that is supposed to govern the network, but several big-name partners, including PayPal, Mastercard and Visa, have dropped out.

Though Mr. Zuckerberg remained collected during the session, it was clear how difficult it would be for him to win lawmakers’ confidence.

“It’s good to have someone that’s sturdy and resilient,” Representative Juan Vargas, Democrat of California, said to Mr. Zuckerberg. “You’re probably the right person at the right time to take this beating.”

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