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'Perhaps You Believe You're Above the Law': Zuckerberg Grilled Over Libra, False Political Ads, and More

Facebook founder and CEO is warned that lawmakers have "serious concerns" about Facebook's size and reach.

With an image of himself on a screen in the background, Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before the House Financial Services Committee in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill October 23, 2019 in Washington, DC. Zuckerberg testified about Facebook's proposed cryptocurrency Libra, how his company will handle false and misleading information by political leaders during the 2020 campaign and how it handles its users’ data and privacy. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

With an image of himself on a screen in the background, Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before the House Financial Services Committee in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill October 23, 2019 in Washington, DC. Zuckerberg testified about Facebook's proposed cryptocurrency Libra, how his company will handle false and misleading information by political leaders during the 2020 campaign and how it handles its users’ data and privacy. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

House Democrats challenged Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on a number of issues Wednesday at a hearing focused primarily on the company's efforts to develop cryptocurrency—putting the social media executive on the defensive regarding Facebook's position on the limits of free speech in political advertising, its labor practices, and critics' claims that the company supports housing discrimination.

Facebook spent more than $12 million in the first nine months of 2019 to lobby the federal government to win approval of Libra, its proposed cryptocurrency, and to fight growing calls that the company should be broken up. Zuckerberg was called to appear before the House Financial Services Committee to explain why lawmakers and the public should trust Facebook.

Committee Chairwoman Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) opened the hearing by accusing Zuckerberg of ruthlessly pursuing more power through Facebook, which is now used by about a third of the world population, at the expense of its users' privacy and other rights.

"Perhaps you believe you're above the law, and its appears that you are aggressively increasing the size of your company and are willing to step on or over anyone—including your competitors, women, people of color, your own users, and even our democracy to get what you want," said Waters. "Given the company's size and reach it should be clear why we have serious concerns about your plans to establish a global digital currency."

Part of the company's threat to democracy, Waters said, comes from allowing factually incorrect political advertising to appear on the platform. Earlier this month, Facebook came under fire for allowing an ad on the site for President Donald Trump's re-election campaign which included falsehoods.

Zuckerberg told the committee that, rather than fact-checking political advertisements before they're able to appear on the platform, independent fact-checkers review content after it is distributed widely.  

CNN notably refused to allow the same video to air on its network, citing falsehoods about the whistleblower complaint which led to the House's impeachment inquiry including the use of the word 'coup' "to describe a constitutionally prescribed legal process."

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) pointedly asked Zuckerberg whether the company has determined the limits of free political speech.

"Would I be able to run advertisements on Facebook targeting Republicans in primaries saying that they voted for the Green New Deal?" she asked. "I mean, if you're not fact checking political advertisements, I'm just trying to understand the bounds here. What's fair game?"

Zuckerberg replied that he wasn't sure whether such an ad would be permitted to appear on Facebook.

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Critics of Facebook say the company should acknowledge that it's used by many as a news publisher and hold itself accountable for the content that appears on the platform.

Zuckerberg also came under fire at Wednesday's hearing for Facebook's algorithm and the company's practice of optimizing ads by sending them to specific demographics—a policy which critics say exacerbates housing discrimination and is reminiscent of the redlining which segregated neighborhoods in the 20th century.

"Technological innovations have created new opportunities for discrimination in U.S. housing markets that may be harder to spot, investigate, and attribute to any particular individual when proprietary algorithms are making decisions that have systemic impacts," wrote the committee ahead of the hearing.

"You have even enabled the practice of this dreaded redlining of certain communities, restricting them from housing and employment opportunities," said Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.). "We in Congress have worked hard for the past 50 years to eliminate the very racial discrimination practices that your platform is guilty of."

Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) drove the discussion back to Libra and Zuckerberg's claim that the cryptocurrency would help the 1.7 billion people around the world who cannot afford to use banks for their financial needs.

"I know you understand the tech and business case for Libra, you have the stats, but I'm not sure you understand the source of the pain that millions are experiencing, that are experiencing underbanking and credit invisibility," Pressley said.

"This is not about banking costs," she added. "This is about a tsunami of hurt that millions are experiencing because of a $1.6 trillion student debt crisis, because of rising healthcare costs and people having to use GoFundMe pages to pay medical bills."

"You represent the power," the congresswoman said, "but I don't think you understand the pain."

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