Congress is putting Mark Zuckerberg through the wringer -- but the open secret is lawmakers don't know what will come of it

  • Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is testifying before congressional committees this week.
  • Lawmakers are uncertain whether substantial regulations addressing privacy concerns will soon make their way to the floor.
  • Republicans are generally averse to adding more regulations in most sectors of the economy, and technology is no different.

WASHINGTON – Facebook’s founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, is on Capitol Hill this week to face a barrage of questions from lawmakers about concerns over privacy, data collection, and more.

But after Zuckerberg goes home to California at the end of the week, it is unclear what, if anything, Congress will do.

Several lawmakers have backed legislation to regulate online political ads – something Zuckerberg has publicly supported. But whether it gets floor time in an otherwise crowded Senate schedule is up in the air.

“You can’t do this on an ad hoc basis,” Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia told reporters. “You’re going to need – I believe – legislation so that Americans are aware of the source of political advertising they’re seeing.”

Warner is one of the senators behind the Honest Ads Act, which would bring companies like Facebook into the same regulatory sphere as television and other mediums through which paid political advertising is conducted.

“I’m optimistic – this is the first step,” Warner said. “By no means is this comprehensive. We’ve got real questions around the whole question of fake accounts, where a lot more of the damage has been done, and that really was not the case of paid political advertising.”

Other Democrats were less optimistic about the future of any legislation for tech companies unless it is approached from a national-security angle.

Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii said that when it comes to meddling attempts by bad actors, he’s “confident that we are making progress and that we will continue to make progress.”

“On the sort of broader question of data security and the bargain that consumers have struck – either knowingly or not – with social media platforms, that’s going to take time to suss out as public policy,” he said.

Sen. Bill Nelson, after leaving a meeting with Zuckerberg on Monday, said progress was unlikely in the near term.

As to whether data-privacy legislation is in the cards for Facebook, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said of Zuckerberg, “I think that all depends on what he says he is willing to do to establish a more regulated system.”

“Then there’s no question,” she said, “but that’s my interest.”

Republicans remain averse to regulations

Many Republicans are not entirely convinced that additional regulations are necessary. Instead, they want Zuckerberg and his counterparts at corporations like Google and Twitter to provide assurances that they are correcting mistakes and putting in place barriers to prevent future mishaps.

“I think internet companies should be made by law to obey their agreements they have with their customers,” said Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. “I think we already have laws that say it’s against the law if you sign an agreement with me for me to do things with information that aren’t [in the terms of use].

“I think what’s unclear to me yet is what exactly is in their agreement – what exactly do they do?” Paul added. “So before anybody starts going crazy, saying, ‘Hey, let’s regulate the internet,’ let’s find out what does their agreement say and what have they done or not.”

Republican Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana told Business Insider that Facebook should be fixing its mistakes and making that clear to Congress but that further laws were unnecessary.

“I’m not interested in regulating Facebook,” Kennedy said. “I’m interested in Facebook regulating itself and solving the problems. I come in peace – I don’t want to regulate Facebook half to death.”

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said there was a need for regulation from a national-security perspective because “clearly there’s a concern of how these platforms are being used by terrorists.”

The Trump administration has focused much effort on deregulating various sectors of the economy, and with Republicans still in control of the White House and Congress – as well as an already stacked legislative calendar – it is unlikely Congress will push forward with restrictions and regulations on the collection and use of people’s data online.

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