- Many lawmakers tripped over themselves in trying to probe Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Capitol Hill.
- The lack of tech literacy among Congress is not reason for having only tech experts be allowed to legislate on the issue, according to one senator who tripped up in the hearing.
WASHINGTON -The Senate, on average, has the oldest members it has had at any point in US history.
That fact, among others, showcased lawmakers’ lack of knowledge about the central functions and structure of Facebook and other major tech companies during CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony in front of the Senate’s Judiciary and Commerce committees on Tuesday.
The hearings showed many senators stumbling over their own words, asking irrelevant questions, and having Zuckerberg explain basic functions of his products.
Many questions from senators prompted groans and laughter from the younger policy staffers, audience members, and reporters at the hearing. But it also illuminated the significant gap in technology literacy between legislators and the tech giants they want to haul in to address growing concerns about privacy.
“When you — when you say ‘pipes,’ you mean…” asked Mississippi Republican Roger Wicker, to which Zuckerberg clarified was slang for internet service providers.
When trying to establish whether Facebook is a monopoly, Sen. Lindsey Graham asked Zuckerberg “is Twitter the same as what you do?”
But Hawaii’s Brian Schatz, a Democrat, is one of the youngest members of the Senate at just 45 years old. Schatz still managed to flub one of his questions when he asked Zuckerberg about “emailing within WhatsApp,” which is not a function of the messaging application owned by Facebook.
“I got lit up because people think I don’t know what WhatsApp is,” Schatz told Business Insider. “I do know what WhatsApp is.”
The lawmakers’ inability to follow up to questions prepared by their staff prompted major concern among the tech crowd, asking themselves how Congress is expected to regulate an entire sector of the economy without the most basic understanding of how it works.
Lawmakers dismissed concerns about their understanding of Facebook
But Schatz offered a different view, noting that while he may have flubbed one of his questions in the hearing, that should not be a sign that lawmakers need to be experts in order to legislate.
“I just think you ought to be a little careful about expecting policy makers to have personal and deep expertise in each of the areas that they make policy in,” Schatz said. “I mean it’s the same line of thinking that says that ‘you haven’t served in the military, you don’t belong on the Foreign Relations or the Armed Services committees.'”
Schatz said limiting legislating to only those who are well-versed in tech policy could have worse outcomes.
“So I’m careful about it. I use all the technology and I have reasonably good facility with it,” Schatz added. “So it’s a convenient trope, but I think it’s one that can lead you down a path where only the people who live in that space get to make policy on that space. And that can lead to confirmation bias and bad policy.”
Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who serves as the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee and led Tuesday’s hearing, chuckled at the idea America’s legislators are out of the loop.
“I would say if you go by what Chuck Grassley knows about it, there is [a problem with tech literacy],” Grassley said. “But I think that I would not be a very good judge of that because I’m 84 years old.”
Like Schatz, Grassley is one of the few senators who actually writes his own tweets instead of having them posted by communications staffers.
I now h v an iphone
— ChuckGrassley (@ChuckGrassley) February 13, 2012
And the notion that lawmakers were steps behind Zuckerberg on important details about Facebook and privacy policies are completely irrelevant, according to Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey.
“I saw just the opposite,” Markey told Business Insider. “I saw him unable to explain what safeguards he was gonna build in to Facebook to protect children and protect adults.”
Markey, a Democrat, said criticisms of lawmakers’ lack of expertise was tantamount to not thinking the US needs seatbelt laws because he cannot fix a car engine.
“Facebook engineers are just asking questions about safety – how foolish! Automotive engineers say ‘they’re asking questions about automotive safety – how foolish of these people – go and get a degree!'” Markey exclaimed outside the Senate chamber on Thursday. “No, you don’t have to have a degree. You just have to be able to remember what your grandmother told your parents who told you that your privacy should not be compromised. Children should not be turned into a product.”
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