Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, had a simple question. “Who is your biggest competitor?” he asked Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at his congressional testimony on Tuesday.
Zuckerberg’s first stab at an answer was to list categories of competition, without giving a specific name of a direct rival. He then retreated to a talking point his minders equipped him with, noting that the average American uses eight different apps (including email) to communicate with people, skipping over the detail that Facebook so far has bought two of the biggest, Instagram and WhatsApp; copied the work of another, Snapchat; and actively seeks to buy out whatever upstart threatens its position.
Zuckerberg’s invocation of email as a possible competitor to Facebook did not satisfy Graham, so he clarified the question.
“If I buy a Ford and it doesn’t work well and I don’t like it, I can buy a Chevy,” Graham continued. “If I’m upset with Facebook, what’s the equivalent product I can go sign up for?”
By this point, it was a rhetorical question. “You don’t feel like you have a monopoly?” Graham wondered.
“It certainly doesn’t feel that way to me,” Zuckerberg said. Spectators in the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing room broke into laughter. It was a moment where the emperor stood naked and exposed.
Lindsey Graham almost certainly shares with most of his fellow senators a certain lack of facility with the intricacies of Facebook’s technical processes. During Zuckerberg’s first-ever congressional testimony, tech reporters on Twitter mercilessly mocked Senate questioners, lamenting that no politician can possibly respond properly to the rampant data privacy, discrimination and election violations on the Facebook platform if they don’t know how the Internet works.
These reporters are wrong. Lindsey Graham — who famously communicated until recently almost exclusively by text on a flip phone — might only know Facebook from when his staff takes a picture of him and posts it. But he knew enough to discern the core problem with Facebook, or, if you’re Facebook, the core advantage — the social media giant has no competition, is too big to manage, and traps users in a devil’s bargain of being subjected to surveillance if they want to connect with friends and relatives online. And moreover, he understood the relationship between a private company and the federal government in a way his colleagues — and even those tech reporters — didn’t.
“I think we’re going to have to lead here,” Graham told reporters afterward. “If we are counting on Facebook regulating itself, we’re going to fail… I am a Republican — I don’t like regulating things unless you have to but to me you’ve got a very large organization without any real competition.”