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Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a combined Senate Judiciary and Commerce committee hearing. (Credit: Chip Somodevilla / Getty)

Zuckerberg’s in a sorry state – again

The sight of Mark Elliot Zuckerberg, 33, testifying before a double-barrelled committee hearing of the United States Senate was a bizarre one.

Forty-four senators assembled from the two committees: a small number in Facebook terms, as Senator Grassley joked as he opened the proceedings, but an awful lot for the Senate. Not unprecedented, a double hearing, as he pointed out; but the topic was unique: “Facebook’s social media privacy and the use and abuse of data.”

Zuck’s puckish, spookily boyish face atop a dark business suit looked odd enough, but even weirder was how he had seemed to play on his youth – he kept talking about the dorm-room origins of his company.

It was hardly gripping. The full transcript is here (courtesy of Bloomberg), and if you really want, watch the whole show here (all 6 hours 21 minutes!).

The TLDR version: Senators, befuddled, read questions (written by their smarter staff); Zuckerberg says sorry. Really sorry.  Promise not to do it again. May I go now?

You think I’m being too cynical? Here, helpfully laid out by the Washington Post, is 14 years of Mark Zuckerberg saying sorry, not sorry the full gamut of his career of big, big blunders and sweetly-spoken apologies: “…his sorries in orange, his promises in blue.”

Zuckerberg has so far managed to avoid facing congressional committees himself, sending lieutenants in his stead to make Facebook’s case (and deliver those apologies). And having testified myself before House and Senate committees, I know it can be a daunting experience, even when there’s much less at stake. But he needn’t have worried. He’s a natural. While it may not have been exactly fun, Mr Facebook adroitly returned the balls over the net.

And he delivered the careful message that he and his PR people have been massaging for weeks: we’re sorry, this won’t happen again; and yes, of course, we’re happy to be regulated, as long as it’s the right kind of regulation.

Which isn’t to say he didn’t stumble.

While his business model is all about sharing, he is one of the world’s most private people. So when he was asked by Senator Durbin what hotel he was staying at he paused for almost ten seconds and pulled a few faces, before ultimately demurring. Durbin did not let him off the hook: “If you’ve messaged anybody this week,” he persisted, “would you share with us the names of the people you’ve messaged?”

That he wouldn’t share such details came as no great surprise. But, remarkably, Zuckerberg did admit to being unfamiliar with what is probably the most important piece of US law for his company: section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (which basically protects websites like Facebook from all the responsibilities of being “publishers”.) This suggests that for all his smarts, he is not all that interested, or informed, in the policy framework in which his company operates.

He also admitted to another failing, as flagged up by the Washington Post:

“When researcher Aleksandr Kogan obtained permission from Facebook users to access their personal information, Zuckerberg argued, that ‘worked according to how the system was designed.’ But, he added, ‘Once [the data] is outside of our system, it’s a lot harder for us to have a full understanding of what’s happening.'”

Which sums up the entire problem for Facebook – and for the rest of us.