Sympathy for Mark Zuckerberg
Here is a sentence I never thought I would find myself typing: I feel sorry for Mark Zuckerberg.
Standing in an unwonted blue suit before roughly half of our sitting senators on Tuesday the 33-year-old billionaire founder of Facebook was blamed for the fact that Donald Trump is president, the ongoing civil war in Burma, the existence of the hypertext transfer protocol cookie, the total lack of interest in enforcing anti-monopoly legislation shown by two (and very likely three) consecutive presidential administrations, and the unwillingness of millions of people to read the boilerplate user agreements that those of us who are roughly Zuckerberg's age or younger have been blithely skipping over since the first time we installed Lego Island on our grandparents' Gateway.
Not a single one of these things is Zuckerberg's fault. It is difficult to say whether any of the elected officials who took obvious delight in bullying this painfully shy — it was reported that Zuckerberg took part in what must have been excruciatingly tedious mock hearings in order to prepare — tech entrepreneur for his supposed crimes were aware of this. What was clear is that virtually none of them knew what they were talking about.
Each exchange on Tuesday was more painful than the one before it. Hearing Zuckerberg attempt to explain his company to a roomful of smug geriatrics was like watching an awkward teenager teaching a basic computer skills class to rude senior citizens at the local community center. How many times did this poor man have to say that he did not, in fact, endorse terrorism? (I counted nine.) Even after reading the transcript I am still not sure what Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) was getting at.
Is it true, my good man, asked Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), that this Facebook of yours can keep track of the websites users visit even when they do not have it open? "I am aware that cookies are used on the internet," Zuckerberg replied meekly. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) calmly accused him of spreading "propaganda," which is old-man Senate hyperbole for lame political ads and for deliberately cultivating the "breeding ground for hate speech against Rohingya refugees" in Southeast Asia. When Zuckerberg replied that policing the speech of hundreds of thousands of people half a world away writing in obscure languages was a somewhat complex matter, his auditor pointed out that he and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) had recently sent a letter to Apple asking about that corporation's approach to Chinese censorship laws. Good to know, senator.
Cruz himself was in classic goblin mode asking Zuckerberg pseudo-technical legal questions that were really dressed-up right-wing talking points about liberal bias. He does this better than any of his competitors and clearly enjoyed every minute of it. At least somebody was having a good day.
The only really important question of the day came from Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who asked, "Do you think the average consumer understands what they are signing up for?"
Of course she doesn't. Very few of the more than one billion Facebook users have even the remotest sense of what is actually involved in the creation and maintenance of even a very simple website, much less an acute appreciation of what happens to the information that we share with a thousand different entities every time we so much as search for a book on Amazon or Google "King Crimson discography ranked." Many of us are becoming slightly more aware of just how powerful the tools employed to harvest our whims and queries have become in recent years; everyone has his favorite story of searching for or even having a conversation about a product only to find his inbox inundated with related 15 percent off solicitations.
In a broader sense, it is unlikely that anyone, not even the website's founders, has yet come to terms with the reality of what it means for hundreds of millions of messages to appear simultaneously in every corner of the globe, on any given subject from birthday greetings to vitriolic abuse to the latest furniture specials at Everson's in Newberry, Michigan (population 1,519). Very likely no one ever will, though it looks increasingly likely that it is not a wholly good thing.
Which is why it was impossible for any onlooker with half a heart not to feel sorry for Zuckerberg. He was being blamed for the existence of the internet itself by people who have lived most of their lives without it.