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Mark Sorryberg 1, Congress 0 – for now

Many of us could probably lay claim to a split personality, but few people are as blatant about it as Mark Zuckerberg.

Facebook doesn’t have one CEO – it has two.

There’s Mark Zuckerberg, the Ultimate Millennial. He wears t-shirt and jeans, is a Harvard dropout, happiest in New York and San Francisco, who talks a good game about connecting the world. He’s an engineer and geek who built perhaps the most remarkable network in human history, innovating his way to astronomical wealth. This guy is shy, but has a public persona that accommodates it.

Then there’s a chap I call Mark Sorryberg – the Big Tech Villain. He wears an ill-fitting suit, squirms when in Washington, is blamed for damaging all we hold dear – from rigging elections (“He’s killing democracy”!) to promoting extremism (“He’s unweaving society”!) and not paying enough tax (“He’s screwing the poor”!). This guy is so shy he comes across as awkward and uncomfortable when he should be projecting authority.

As the excellent Zeynep Tufekci wrote in an entertaining blast for Wired, we’ve seen a lot of this second character since the company was founded. In fact, over the past fourteen years, “sorry” seems to have been the easiest word for Facebook’s leader.

In 2006, after the launch of News Feed annoyed users, Sorryberg wrote in a blog: “This was a big mistake on our part, and I’m sorry for it.” In 2007, failures in the Beacon advertising system prompted another grovelling blog: “We simply did a bad job… and I apologise for it.” As Tufekci notes, by 2008, all of his blogs for Facebook were in effect apologies, and we saw several other examples even before he said about the Cambridge Analytica leak to CNN: “I’m really sorry this happened”.

So Mark Sorryberg is a familiar figure by now. He was on display in Washington this week, following the biggest crisis in the history of his company. There were several open goals in front of his interrogators, and opportunities to make him squirm and wriggle were not in short supply.

Yet, for the most part, they missed. After nearly 10 hours of grilling, Facebook is – for now – a richer company, Zuckerberg’s authority as CEO is re-asserted, and the potential disaster this week might have been was averted. These are all very short-term interpretations. There could be big trouble ahead. But the lawmakers fluffed it.

Ineffective questioning

The format didn’t help. For non-partisan reasons that are laudable in principle but ludicrous in practice, each lawmaker was given a maximum of 5 minutes on Tuesday and 4 minutes on Wednesday. You simply cannot build pressure, interrogate answers, or pursue a line of inquiry in the way necessary over such a short time.

But the representatives didn’t help themselves. In his allotted time, Senator Roy Blunt first told a boring story about his business cards, then gave a shout out to his 13 year-old son Charlie who is “dedicated to Instagram… [and] he’d want to be sure that I mentioned that while I was here”, which was sweet.

I’ve transcribed what followed.

Blunt: “Do you collect user data through cross-device tracking.”

Sorryberg: “Er, Senator, I believe we do link people’s accounts between devices in order to make sure that their Facebook and Instagram and their other experiences can be synced between devices.

Blunt: “And that would also include off-line data? Data that is tracking, that is not necessarily linked to Facebook but linked to one… some device they went through Facebook on?”

Sorryberg: “Senator, I want to make sure we get this right. So I want to have my team follow up with you on that afterwards.

Blunt: “That doesn’t seem that complicated to me. You understand this better than I do. But maybe you can explain to me why that’s complicated. Do you track devices that an individual who uses Facebook…has… that is connected to the device they use for their Facebook connection but not necessarily connected to Facebook?”

Sorryberg: “I’m not, I’m not sure [of] the answer to that question.”

Blunt: “Really.”

Sorryberg: “Yes”.

A work of literature that penultimate question was not. I don’t understand it, Zuckerberg didn’t understand it – and Blunt definitely didn’t understand it. He seemed poorly briefed, despite the gravity of the occasion.

Unfortunately, it was emblematic of the meandering, ineffective mode that dominated Tuesday. Wednesday’s interrogation was better, but still not as good as it should have been, not least because there were many questions that weren’t asked. The Facebook CEO’s weaknesses weren’t really exploited.

For instance, he should have been pushed harder on how hard it is to retrieve data that has fallen into the wrong hands. He should have been pushed harder about Facebook’s reaction to news that The Observer newspaper was publishing a story on the subject. His claims that something awry may have been going on at Cambridge University – vigorously denied by the institution – deserved more of a probing.

And the long history of errors at the company, plus its initial denial that there had been a data “breach” when it came to Cambridge Analytica, were worthy of a mauling that was never heard.

First do no harm

Given the scale of the recent controversy, and the courtroom theatrics of these cross-examinations, there was much to fear for Facebook this week. It was Zuckerberg’s first time getting grilled by the Senate and Congress, and his awkwardness in such public arenas was clear for all to see.

His facial expressions garnered comment on social media – but it was his body language and garb, over which he exercises more control, that struck me. On Tuesday, Zuckerberg’s tie knot was chunky and loose; and his halting responses and nervous smiles didn’t project much authority.

But he maintained his composure and politeness throughout. Investors gave a clear enough verdict: the two days added $26bn, or 6 per cent, to the company’s value.

There is some gridlock in Congress, and America’s politicians have a range of very big problems on their plate. That means that for the time being, the regulatory threat to Facebook – though of course they would say they welcome the chance to work with regulators – comes from Brussels and GDPR, rather than Washington.

In terms of new law or regulation, the question is: what kind? One of the great intellectual challenges in this field is in devising regulations that can keep pace with technological innovation: a very hard task. It is wrong to think, for instance, that you can just import the kind of regulation that Ofcom do for broadcasters, and apply it to video content on social media platforms.

The interrogation to come

While this week has not been the disaster for Facebook that many anticipated, and some wanted, the medium-term threats certainly haven’t gone away. And events of recent months have fundamentally changed the level of scrutiny the company is getting, while making perhaps hundreds of millions of users aware of the trade-off between their free use of Facebook and the digital footprint they leave behind.

As my esteemed colleague Dave Lee has noted, there are plenty of deferred questions that the CEO and his team will need to address. And the demands of British regulators that he gives evidence here, too, won’t quieten any time soon.

In particular, perhaps Congress members who realise this week was a missed opportunity will invite their guest back to clarify several of the points he made. If they are smart, they should see this as the beginning of a process, rather than the end.

But in adopting his apologetic posture with an efficacy his interrogators sadly lacked, Mark Sorryberg got one over America’s lawmakers when they should have scored an easy win. If he came to Britain, he wouldn’t get such an easy ride – which is the main reason he probably won’t.

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