We can’t express enough how discouraging this was to us, because it validated all the fears we had about the fact John Kennedy was a Democrat a decade ago and how full his transition from a card-carrying liberal who ran for the Senate in 2004 on the proposition that the Bush tax cuts were “nonsense on a stick” to Louisiana’s Mr. Conservative today really is.
Having said that, Kennedy’s Senate voting record has been fine. The question has been whether that conservative voting record is the product of his actual philosophy or the manifestation of a political opportunist who plays his role based on his perception of what the voters want.
In the case of a Ted Cruz, let’s say, it’s clear: Cruz certainly acts in concert with his perception of the wishes of his constituents, and Texas is a conservative state to be sure. But Cruz is also a die-hard conservative who believes what he says and takes political positions consistent with conservative principles. Sometimes he’s doctrinaire to a fault and sometimes he puts himself out on the political edge by sticking to his guns, but you know what Cruz will do on a political issue virtually every time before he even does it because of that consistency.
And in Tuesday’s Senate hearing where Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, was under the microscope for various five-minute senatorial sound clips, was consistent with what one would expect from Cruz – his issue was the platform’s rather high-profile censorship of conservative voices and whether Zuckerberg could claim status as a tech company providing a neutral platform for free expression while at the same time acting as a publisher. There’s a reason this matters – if Facebook is a publisher which takes responsibility for the content appearing on its platform, then Facebook is subject to a large-scale Parade of Horrors with respect to all kinds of things like copyright infringement lawsuits and the like.
Cruz’ questioning was the most substantive and dramatic five minutes of the hearing. Unfortunately, Kennedy’s was anything but.
Here’s the video of that five minutes. Further reactions to follow…
Kennedy’s line to Zuckerberg that “Your user agreement sucks” might be a memorable one, but he is hardly on solid ground as a U.S. Senator who routinely votes to approve legislation written in language far more Byzantine and obscure than Facebook’s. And his line that he doesn’t want to vote to regulate Facebook and the social media industry “but by God I will” is a chilling one for lots of reasons.
Zuckerberg has already been pretty clear that he’s perfectly fine with senatorial busybodies like Kennedy sticking their proboscises into the social media industry in order to regulate it – and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out why. Zuckerberg is worth some $66 billion at last count – he’s the guy with all the money in the world, and if Facebook is to be regulated Facebook will be the entity with all the high-priced lawyers and lobbyists who write the regulations. The U.S. Senate, which contains such intellectual midgets as Cory Booker, Patty Murray, Dick Blumenthal, John McCain and Kamala Harris, is completely beyond its depth attempting to install a regulatory scheme on a company dealing with such complex mathematical equations as Facebook does. They proved it Tuesday. As Reason noted…
Sen. Roy Blunt, (R–Mo.), for instance, didn’t seem to understand that Facebook lacks a means of accessing information from other apps unless users specifically opt in. The same was true of Sen. Roger Wicker (R–Miss.), who needed a lot of clarification on how Facebook Messenger interacts with cellular service. Zuckerberg had to carefully explain to Sen. Brian Schatz (D–Hawaii) that WhatsApp is encrypted, and Facebook can’t read, let alone monetize, the information people exchange using that service. Zuckerberg had to explain to multiple senators, including Dean Heller (R–Nev.), that Facebook doesn’t technically sell its data: The ad companies don’t get to see the raw information.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D–Vt.) brought along a poster on which his office had printed out images of various Facebook pages. Leahy asked whether these were Russian propaganda groups. “Senator, are you asking about those specifically?” Zuckerberg asked. He of course had no way of knowing what was going on with those specific pages, just from looking at pictures of them. “I’m not familiar with those pieces of content,” Zuckerberg finally conceded.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D–Minn.) offered this metaphor to explain Facebook’s recent troubles: “the way I explain it to my constituents is that if someone breaks into my apartment with a crowbar and takes my stuff, it’s just like if the manager gave them the keys.” But that metaphor doesn’t quite work—Facebook didn’t willfully assist in a crime. Meanwhile, Sen. Debbie Fischer (R–Neb.) didn’t understand, at a fundamental level, that if you’re using Facebook, you have agreed to let Facebook know a lot of information about you.
And then there was the biggest clown of all, who unwittingly elicited why the hearing was such a disaster…
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R–S.C.) asked whether Facebook had any major competitors. Zuckerberg tried to explain that the company competes across different categories related to Facebook’s several main functions—as a tech giant, against Google, as a social media site, against Twitter, and so on—which led Graham to fret about Facebook being a monopoly and thus incapable of self-regulation. Nevertheless, Graham asked Zuckerberg whether the CEO would be willing to propose regulations that Facebook might like the government to impose on it.
Not only does Graham not understand that regulation of Facebook would be a disaster because the Senate isn’t capable of understanding what they’re regulating, but he even invited Facebook to write the regulations which would inevitably cement that company as the dominant player in the market forever – just as Ford and General Motors did to the auto industry.
Kennedy is a lot smarter than Graham, which is why his posturing on the regulatory issue is so discouraging. And his questions on privacy, which Zuckerberg swatted away time and again by noting Facebook users already have the ability to control how much of their data can be accessed by third parties, etc., were an abject waste of time. It’s not what Facebook does with the data you voluntarily provide them which is frightening about Facebook – it’s what Facebook is doing to shape our society by use of its content curation and algorithms.
Kennedy picked up on none of that, and instead chose to preen about concerns low-information Facebook users and swallowers of conspiracy theories have. He asked all the wrong questions and failed to shed light on what’s really wrong with Facebook. And what’s worse, he helped further the momentum toward a regulatory lockdown of social media which will preserve everything which is mediocre, or worse about it while creating barriers to anything better coming along.
We wish he’d done better. He’s capable of better. Instead he took the easy road and his five minutes was little better than that of Blumenthal, Leahy or Graham. That’s a shame.