When addressing a veteran or active-duty member of the U.S. military, it’s common for government officials to begin by thanking them for their service. And when Republicans address an American business tycoon, it’s apparently good form to congratulate them on their massive riches before attempting any sort of critique of the harm they’ve wrought in society.
Sen. John Thune, the South Dakota Republican who chairs the Senate’s Commerce Committee, set the tone for the Mark Zuckerberg hearings in his opening remarks Tuesday. “Mr. Zuckerberg,” he said, “in many ways you and the company you created—the story that you created—represent the American dream.” Having thus flashed his patriotic capitalist credentials, Thune went on to politely encourage Zuckerberg to do a better job of protecting people’s privacy.
Wednesday’s House hearings opened with an even greater flourish of pro-Facebook rhetoric, courtesy of House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden, an Oregon Republican. His lavish praise of the company is too long to quote here in full, so let’s just go with an excerpt (yada yadas mine):
You and your co-founders started a company in your dorm room that’s grown to be one of the biggest and most successful businesses in the entire world. Through innovation and quintessentially American entrepreneurial spirit, Facebook and the tech companies that have flourished in Silicon Valley join the legacy of great American companies who built our nation, drove our economy forward and yada yada yada.
The memo apparently also reached Thune and Walden’s Republican colleagues. “You’re a great American success story,” said Rep. Gregg Harper of Mississippi. “You’re a real American success story,” clarified Rep. Bill Johnson of Ohio. Texas’ Joe Barton ventured a variation, calling Facebook “a success story in anyone’s book.”
Rep. Pete Olson, a Texas Republican, went right ahead and explicitly equated Zuckerberg to a military leader. When the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke, Olson noted:
You were quoted as saying, “I started Facebook, I run it, I’m responsible for what happens here.” You said those same words in your opening statement an hour and a half ago. I know you believe that in your heart. It’s not just some talking point, some canned speech. Because, my nine years in the Navy, I know the best commanding officers, the best skippers, the best CEOs have that exact same attitude.
For the most part, Zuckerberg stoically soaked up the praise. After all, it played into his case that regulating Facebook and other social media companies would stifle American innovation. (It also helped run down the clock on each questioner’s four minutes—a key part of Zuckerberg’s evasion strategy.)
And Zuckerberg wasn’t above raising the specter of competition from China himself. While Facebook is open to some regulation on features like face recognition, he said at one point, “We still need to make it so American companies can innovate in those areas or else we’ll fall behind Chinese competitors and others around the world.”
But Sen. Dan Sullivan of Alaska got so smarmy at the outset of his questioning that even Zuckerberg recoiled. “Mr. Zuckerberg, quite a story, right?,” Sullivan intoned. “Dorm room to the global behemoth you are. Only in America, would you agree with that?” To Zuckerberg’s awkward silence, Sullivan prodded: “You couldn’t do this in China, right? Err—what you did?” Zuckerberg, who has long aspired to launch Facebook in China, demurred: “Well, senator—there are some strong Chinese internet companies.” Sullivan laughed: “Right, but you’re supposed to answer yes to this question. I’m trying to help you. Give me a break.” (Side note for anyone still wondering: He’s not running.)
Even Republicans who took a tougher line felt the need to begin by paying homage to Zuckerberg’s business acumen. “I think you have built an extraordinary company,” Sen. John Kennedy, a Louisiana Republican, assured Zuckerberg, shortly before telling him, “Your user agreement sucks.”
Few Democrats felt the same compulsion to affirm their capitalist bona fides before grilling Zuckerberg. “I don’t have much faith in corporate America,” grunted New Jersey’s Frank Pallone, the ranking Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, in his opening remarks. Rep. Anna Eshoo, a California Democrat whose district includes parts of Silicon Valley, said, “I believe that American companies owe something to America.” One exception was Illinois Democrat Bobby Rush, who began an otherwise critical line of questioning by saying, “Mr. Zuckerberg, you should be commended that Facebook has grown so big so fast.” (He shouldn’t.)
It’s not exactly a scandal that members of Congress said some complimentary things to Zuckerberg in the course of eight-plus hours of questioning. But it is striking the degree to which it’s an article of faith among Republicans that Facebook’s enormous success in an unregulated market—which it achieved in part by hoodwinking users into giving up more privacy than they could possibly anticipate or understand, potentially in violation of an FTC settlement—requires exaltation and thanksgiving from the nation’s lawmakers. Their view of Facebook as an embodiment of the American dream may also hint at what will happen when the Republican-led Congress takes up the task of regulating the company and its peers: probably not much at all.