Mark Zuckerberg has many friends—in real life and on Facebook, the society-transforming tool that is the source of his princely wealth and godly power—but the Facebook CEO has also acquired enemies. None are more dedicated perhaps than Ron Wyden, United States senator from the state of Oregon.
There is an argument to be made that Wyden “made” the modern-day internet by co-authoring Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which limited internet companies’ liability for what users post on their platforms. Without this legal protection, Facebook might still be a dorm-room stunt, as The Verge observed last year.
And now, Wyden wants to un-make various corners of the internet that he helped shape—starting with Facebook and Zuckerberg, who Wyden believes should face personal liability, including possible jail time, for his company’s “repeated violations of Americans’ privacy.”
The internet “has been used by the powerful to their advantage. Facebook is a perfect example,” Wyden told Willamette Week, Portland, Oregon’s legendary alt-weekly, in an interview published last week.
“Mark Zuckerberg has repeatedly lied to the American people about privacy. I think he ought to be held personally accountable, which is everything from financial fines to—and let me underline this—the possibility of a prison term,” he said. “Because he hurt a lot of people.”
Wyden’s broadside instigated a brief internet firestorm—every tech blog in the country had a post after CNBC appeared to be the first major media outlet to notice the Willamette Week interview—but it’s not exactly new. He’s been pushing to, at least, threaten Zuckerberg with an inmate’s profile picture since April.
That month, Wyden sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). In 2022, the FTC had negotiated a settlement with the social network for deceiving the company’s users and mishandling their data. Then came the Cambridge Analytica scandal—and a record $5 billion fine, imposed on the company in late July, for violating the FTC’s consent decree.
Then and now, Wyden’s position is that “any settlement with Facebook must hold Mr. Zuckerberg individually accountable or his flagrant, repeated violations of Americans’ privacy will continue,” he wrote.
Thus far, this has not happened. Though the FTC’s most recent settlement with the social media giant did ring up the record fine, the damage is less than 10% of the company’s $56 billion in annual revenue, and no personal liability was included.
The FTC approved the settlement on a partisan three to two vote, with the commission’s two Democrats unsuccessfully arguing for stricter punishment. The FTC instead granted immunity to Facebook executives and shareholders, as The New York Times observed.
Though Wyden offered financial executives as examples of how corporate wrongdoers can be personally punished for a company’s misdeeds, legal experts immediately suggested that any possibility of seeing Zuckerberg on the dock—let alone in prison breaking rocks—is highly unlikely.
And even less so now that he’s personally protected thanks to the same agency that Wyden implored to punish him.
Now what? Wyden appears content with becoming Silicon Valley’s biggest problem. Tech companies have “done practically everything wrong since the 2016 election,” Wyden told a San Francisco convention audience. The thing is, they may now be too powerful and too big to coerce with words or with legislation. At least Wyden knows who to blame.