Disclaimer: This article will be updating live for the duration of the Oct. 23 hearing. Please check in for the latest from the hearing.
In a much-anticipated meeting of politics and tech, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has finally made his way to United States regulators. He will be testifying before the House Financial Services Committee on Facebook’s Libra. The planned stablecoin has been the subject of much controversy since it’s June whitepaper. Days after, Chairwoman of the committee Maxine Waters called for a moratorium on Libra’s development.
According to Zuckerberg’s prepared remarks released yesterday, he plans to assure the committee that Facebook will not launch Libra anywhere in the world without having satisfied U.S. regulators. Expect the representatives of the committee to be skeptical of this claim.
10:07 The Hearing begins
Chairwoman Maxine Waters began the hearing by calling the committee to order. Rep. Waters’ skepticism of Facebook’s intentions are well-documented.
In her opening remarks, Representative Waters suggested that the best course of action would be “if Facebook concentrates on addressing existing deficiencies and issues before proceeding with Libra.” The Chairwoman named staff discrimination, anti-trust concerns, consumer trust, and the 2016 elections as preeminent among these.
Ranking Member Patrick McHenry began his comments by declaring that “Today is a trial on American innovation.” In a comment on modern dependence on technology, he noted that most of the members of congress were checking their phones “right now.” To Zuckerberg: “Fair or not fair, you’re here to answer for the digital age.”
After beginning his remarks with an appeal to the vast global unbanked, Zuckerberg said that “The financial industry is stagnant. There is no digital financial architecture to support the innovation that we need.” He went on to say “I don’t know if Libra is going to work, but I believe in trying new things.”
10:25 Questioning begins
In her questions to Zuckerberg, Chairwoman Waters referred to an earlier ban on cryptocurrencies on Facebook, accusing the company of changing its tune only when it realized how much it could dominate the market.
Rep. McHenry’s line of questioning began by asking about China, especially concerned with the rise in China’s technology companies. Zuckerberg: “Today, 6 out of 10 of the top tech companies are coming out of China and certainly don’t share our values.” This seems to play into a longer-term argument that Libra is the U.S.’s best chance against China’s crypto development. McHenry pushed the question, however: “Why not just do a Facebook version of Alipay?”
Switching back to domestic regulator concerns, Rep. Mahoney asked Zuckerberg what he meant by approval from all U.S. regulators, given the number of agencies and entities in play. “We’re committed to getting all of the appropriate approvals,” Zuckerberg answered.
Rep. Mahoney further asked Zuckerberg to commit to keeping Libra from all wallets that maintain lower standards of know-your-customer (KYC) and anti-money laundering (AML) controls than those that Facebook is promising for its Calibra wallets. Facebook’s CEO said “I can’t sit hear and speak for the whole of the Libra Association, but you have my commitment from Facebook.”
Referring to the recent departure of several major companies from the Libra Association, Rep. Wagner pushed Zuckerberg to admit that Libra is “a risky project.” She questioned the prospect of Facebook’s end-to-end encryption while citing recent figures saying that 16.8 of 18.4 million reported instances of child sexual abuse online came via Facebook. Zuckerberg agreed that this is a problem but attributed those numbers to the company’s reporting structure: “We actually do a better job than everyone else of acting on it and finding it.”
Rep. Velazquez saw Facebook’s acquisition of Whatsapp a problematic template, saying that it began with similar promises of maintaining separation that led, 18 months later, to the companies being linked. “Have you learned that you should not lie?” Velazquez asked.
Calling back upon Libra’s appeal to the unbanked, Rep. Lucas suggested that many of those without traditional bank accounts don’t trust banks, nor “congresspeople, nor captains of industry for that matter.” Zuckerberg responded that the real test would be how Libra behaved once allowed into the free market.
Rep. Meeks also went after Libra’s claims to work with the unbanked by asking whether Facebook had invested in minority depository institutions or similar efforts to provide financial services to the unbanked in the U.S. Zuckerberg responded that he did not know. “I would guess that there are almost zero dollars there,” said Meeks.
11:00 Further questioning
In introducing himself to Mark Zuckerberg, Rep. Brad Sherman said he was “anti-cryptocurrency back when you were anti-cryptocurrency.” He attributed Turkey’s stop to the power of the U.S. Dollar and maintained that crypto as a whole threatened that power.
Referring to Zuckerberg’s claim that Libra will meet all regulatory concerns, Sherman said “You will deploy a horde of lobbyists to stop us from writing a new statute.” Sherman’s five minutes of questions contained not a single question.
Rep. Huizenga asked what would happen were U.S. regulators to oppose the launch of Libra and Facebook fulfilled its commitment not to launch while the Libra Association remained intent on launching. Zuckerberg answered: “Then I believe that we would be forced to leave the association.”
Rep. Scott accused Facebook of participating in redlining by enabling discriminatory targetting practices. Rep. Stivers followed up on the same question, asking if he could target Facebook advertising using age, sex and race today. Zuckerberg checked with his staff before answering no.
After carefully clarifying the relationship between Libra, the Libra Association and the 21 existing members of the association, Rep. Green asked how many of these companies are run by women, minorities or members of the LGBTQ community. Zuckerberg answered that he did not know the answer to any of these questions. Rep. Green was unconvinced and said that “the public needs to know whether this is an organization that is truly diverse or whether this is an organization run by a small group of persons, all of whom have similar characteristics.”
Zuckerberg and Rep. Barr discussed the potential threat of China’s digital renminbi and its involvement in the Belt and Road project. Barr went on to ask about censorship, asking Zuckerberg to commit to not censoring ads related to President Trump.
12:14 Recess and return
Rep. Perlmutter began the second half of the hearing by trying to focus on the new Libra and Calibra projects rather than Facebook’s history.
“Are you a capitalist or a socialist?” asked Rep. Williams. Zuckerberg, chuckling, answered capitalist, to which Williams said “I appreciate that.” The question followed Williams praising Zuckerberg’s entrepreneurial spirit and the founding of Facebook. In specifying rivals to the U.S. leading the way, China again took center stage.
Freedom of expression was at the top of Rep. Himes’ list of concerns. He applauded Zuckerberg’s speech on the subject at Georgetown University, but mentioned negatives like Facebook’s use in targetting Rohingyas in Myanmar and asked for a commitment to investing in the positive, especially education.
Rep. Hill asked, “Wouldn’t it be easier if there was simply a digital dollar?” Zuckerberg responded that using a digital dollar would be good for coping with U.S. regulation but would interfere with global usage.
The self-styled only blockchain programmer in Congress, Rep. Foster was focused on Calibra’s potential for anonymous trading. “As your code currently exists, would it be possible to transact anonymously with it?” Foster asked, which Zuckerberg did not answer directly. Foster was also concerned with the ability to reverse transactions, which has been a subject of tremendous debate in bringing crypto usage as a whole into the mainstream. Zuckerberg’s response was “I’m not saying we haven’t thought about it, I’m saying we haven’t nailed it down yet.”
Rep. Loudermilk extended Zuckerberg consolation: “Even some of your harshest critics today, I will venture to say, will post their comments and maybe parts of their testimony on Facebook.”
As with Rep. Green, Zuckerberg was unable to answer a series of questions from Rep. Beatty on diversity in Facebook’s hiring. She also reiterated concerns about redlining. Referring to COO Sheryl Sandberg, currently chairing Facebook’s civil rights task force, Beatty dismissed the initiative. “I don’t think there’s anything about civil rights in her background,” she said.
Rep. Davidson, who spoke with Cointelegraph ahead of today’s hearing, asked about Zuckerberg’s views on broader implications for blockchain technology in the world. He further asked, “Do you believe Libra has the role of being centralized or do you think the money itself could be decentralized?”
“One of the things that you’re probably sensing from us is that the dollar is very important to us as a tool,” explained Rep. Vargas. “When something threatens the dollar, we get very nervous.”
Rep. Kustoff asked Zuckerberg about involvement in expanding broadband connection to the unbanked and underbanked in the U.S. Referring to Facebook’s connectivity initiatives, Zuckerberg said “We believe that they’ve helped more than 100 million people connect to the internet who weren’t connected before.”
“I wouldn’t be sitting here today if it wasn’t for Facebook,” said Rep. San Nicolas, in reference to using the platform to campaign in the underserved media market of Guam. He proceeded to press Zuckerberg on the nature of Libra’s reserve backing and maintaining the value of the token amid fluctuations in its proposed basket of currencies.
Speaking with Rep. Gonzalez, Zuckerberg reiterated that the commitments he makes today apply to Facebook, not to the Libra Association. Referring to the debate over competition with China, Gonzalez called himself a hawk on the subject but objected to the ongoing conversation, saying: “This isn’t Mark Zuckerberg vs. Xi Jinping.”
Rep. Tlaib challenged Facebook’s pledge to stop hate groups proliferating on the platform. The congresswoman showed a picture of an armed man in front of a mosque and asked Zuckerberg if such a post meets Facebook’s community standards. She further criticized the exception to standards for political figures saying “it is hate speech. It is hate.”
14:50 Second recess, separate vote and back to the stand
After a Zuckerberg-requested recess and the committee’s dispersal to vote on an unrelated resolution, the hearing is back in motion and moving into its sixth hour.
In his comments, Rep. Tom Emmer wanted Mark Zuckerberg to elucidate efforts to engage the broader blockchain ecosystem in Libra’s efforts. Zuckerberg put forward the shared control of the Libra Association and said he hoped that the association will work to educate the public about the industry. Cointelegraph readers and crypto fans at large will remember Emmer from the Safe Harbor for Taxpayers with Forked Assets bill.
Skeptical of Facebook’s interest in serving the unbanked, Rep. Pressley said, “You are attempting to use technology to solve what is, at the end of the day, an issue of wealth.”
Rep. Ocasio-Cortez began her questioning by quizzing Zuckerberg on Facebook’s and his knowledge of Cambridge Analytica’s use of Facebook’s data. She asked, “Do you see a potential problem here with a complete lack of fact-checking on political ads?”
Continuing the theme of Facebook’s role in the 2020 elections, Rep. Wexton was displeased with Facebook’s stated goal of managing disinformation rather than misinformation. As the congresswoman defined, misinformation is an active effort to propagandize.
Rep. Dean accused Facebook of working to form what amounts to “a shadow sovereign government.”
After plugging the introduction of the Keep Big Tech Out of Finance act, Rep. Jesús Garcia accused Zuckerberg of overreach, asking “How much wealth and power is too much for you?” Garcia ended his remarks by saying “Facebook has acquired too much power, it is too big, and we should consider breaking it up.”
Rep. Phillips described his attitude: “I am one who celebrates innovation and innovators and, frankly, wish we had more of those in Congress.” He continued to question changes in Facebook’s means of preventing foreign governments from buying political advertisements on their platform.
16:05 Closing remarks
In closing remarks, Vice-Chair San Nicolas thanked Mark Zuckerberg for his time in what turned into a marathon hearing, now over six hours long.
Chairwoman Waters also thanked Zuckerberg, while also entreating him to consider the concerns the committee expressed about Facebook’s diversity, fair housing behavior, handling of customer data and standing as a potential monopoly.