Zuckerberg tries to convince skeptical congress on Libra, privacy

  • Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies Wednesday before a House Financial Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on Facebook's impact on the financial services and housing sectors.

    Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies Wednesday before a House Financial Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on Facebook's impact on the financial services and housing sectors. Associated Press

 
 
Updated 10/23/2019 10:53 AM

Facebook Inc. Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg struggled to convince Congress that the company's plans for a cryptocurrency are wise in light of all the other challenges the company has failed to solve.

In the early part of Zuckerberg's testimony to the House Financial Services Committee Wednesday, lawmakers made it clear that they weren't just asking about the digital currency known as Libra, but about whether the 35-year-old executive should be trusted with the tremendous power his company has amassed over 2.7 billion global users of Facebook products.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Committee Chairwoman Maxine Waters said Facebook should stop work on its cryptocurrency project until the company addresses a series of unrelated "deficiencies" in its social-media business.

https://t.co/K2g4PUIriZ

-- Bloomberg Crypto (@crypto) October 23, 2019"You have opened up a serious discussion about whether Facebook should be broken up," Waters, a California Democrat, told Zuckerberg.

In the first hour, many of Washington's grievances about Facebook were laid bare. There were heated questions about Facebook's refusal to fact-check political ads; accusations of rampant child exploitation on the platform; Facebook's move to encryption and the impact that would have on the ability to obscure criminals; the company's preparation for the 2020 presidential election; and what it's doing to prevent "deepfakes," or manipulated videos.

Zuckerberg vowed to try to address lawmakers' concerns but also said he hoped to "address the risk of not innovating. I don't know if Libra is going to work, but I believe in trying new things." He also acknowledged that it has been "a challenging few years for Facebook."

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Zuckerberg is well aware of the skepticism the cryptocurrency plan faces, not least because of the missteps Facebook has made regarding protecting data privacy. He said some of Libra's early partners abandoned the project probably because it was risky and because of the intense regulatory scrutiny.

Waters has been one of Congress's loudest critics of Facebook's effort to create the digital token. When the social-media giant first announced its plans in June, she almost immediately demanded that the company halt development.

Government officials and central bankers in Europe have also raised concerns about how the project would protect users' privacy and prevent criminals from using it to launder money. Zuckerberg reiterated that he has no intention of launching the cryptocurrency without approval from regulators.

Zuckerberg made the case that if the U.S. doesn't lead in innovation, specifically in areas like cryptocurrency, then China will leap ahead.

"We can't sit here and assume that because America is today the leader that it will always get to be the leader if we don't innovate," he said.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

While Zuckerberg has been leading a charm offensive in the capital recently, his appearance before lawmakers was a highly anticipated event and prompted the usual media circus. The hearing room opened at 9:30 a.m. in Washington but journalists were already lining up two hours earlier for very limited seating. A line for the public included "line holders," saving spots for executives from Facebook and the Libra Association.

Zuckerberg came prepared with lofty arguments about Libra's purpose: It would help reduce income inequality by giving people -- including 14 million in the U.S. without access to bank accounts -- an easier, faster and cheaper way to send money around the world. At the same time, it would secure America's international financial leadership, since Libra would be backed mostly by the U.S. dollar, especially if the cryptocurrency is allowed to launch prior to similar planned efforts in China.

But it was clear from the beginning that Waters and others were prepared to be tough on Zuckerberg. For years he said his social network's purpose was to "connect the world," but that mission ended up as a grow-at-all-costs strategy pursued with blind spots around the harmful ways people were using the product. Zuckerberg last testified to congress in April 2018, answering 10 hours of questions about how Facebook allowed app developers to collect data on users, and how the platform was used by Russia to influence the 2016 presidential election.

Goals for the democratization of money aside, Facebook envisions Libra being incorporated into the company's various messaging apps including WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger. The company believes that the currency could help benefit its existing advertising business, or create opportunity for new revenue streams.

The hearing is supposed to allow each of the committee's 60 listed members 5 minutes to speak or ask questions on top of opening statements and breaks. Assuming most of them show up to take advantage of their allotted time, that means the hearing could last well over five hours.

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