SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, took on an unexpected starring role in media coverage of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's appearance at a joint committee hearing of the U.S. Senate this week, but a Hatch spokesman noted it was for all the wrong reasons.
Hatch used the entirety of his allotted five minutes to speak with Zuckerberg and began his questioning with a statement expressing his dismay that anyone using Facebook could still be surprised to learn that the company sells information to advertisers. He also noted that "nothing in life is free" and that users get free use of the service in exchange for access to their data.
Hatch also underscored the need for transparency in agreements between social media operators and users, to ensure everyone knows when, how and what data is collected.
But it was a very short segment of Hatch's exchange with Zuckerberg, which followed the senator's statement, that blew up on social media and was held up, by numerous outlets as evidence that Congress in general, and Hatch specifically, is out of touch with the tech world.
In one piece of coverage under a headline that read, "Some senators don't understand Facebook," Washington Post reporter Callum Borchers wrote, "In perhaps the most glaring example, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) asked Zuckerberg, ‘How do you sustain a business model in which users don't pay for your service?’ Zuckerberg paused for a moment, seemingly surprised by the basic nature of the question, and said, ‘Senator, we run ads.’”
The story was accompanied by an embedded Tweet from CNN reporter Daniella Diaz that featured a very brief video that only showed that part of Hatch and Zuckerberg's conversation. Neither the story, nor the accompanying tweet, acknowledged Hatch's preamble before that question, which included a very specific recognition of how Facebook's business model works.
"Some have professed themselves shocked … that companies like Facebook and Google share user data with advertisers," Hatch said. "Did any of these individuals ever stop and ask themselves why Facebook and Google don't charge for access? Nothing in life is free, everything involves trade offs. If you want something without having to pay money for it, you're going to have to pay for it in some other way, it seems to me.
"These great websites that don't charge for access, they extract value in some other way. And there's nothing wrong with that as long as they're up front about what they're doing."
In a statement to the Deseret News, Hatch spokesman Matt Whitlock said it appeared many news outlets relied on this excerpt when reporting on the Zuckerberg testimony and failed to recognize the context, or point, of Hatch's question about the sources of Facebook's business revenue.
“Sen. Hatch focused his opening statement and line of questioning on Facebook’s business model, noting himself that ads are a necessary part of the internet age," Whitlock said. "After a discussion about Facebook’s business model, Hatch asked in summation how a company like Facebook can provide its service for free — a simple question intended to underscore the prior discussion, a common tactic used in Congressional hearings to make a point.
"Unfortunately, many in the media seemed to be following the hearing only on social media and only saw the 12-second summation, missing both the context and the entire point of Sen. Hatch’s questioning," Whitlock said.
"It’s ironic to see members of the media use this as an example of Congress being tech-illiterate when it’s in fact an example of media being Congress-illiterate, or worse — willfully ignoring context to fit a pre-determined narrative.”
To watch Zuckerberg's full Senate testimony, visit c-span.org.