WASHINGTON—Founder and CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, articulated his views on immigration reform, NSA surveillance, and the future of Facebook in a candid interview Sept. 18 at the Newseum. Wearing jeans and a black hoodie, Zuckerberg spoke in a disarming, colloquial street language. He said solving the immigration issue “is a really big deal” and hearing that an undocumented student would not be able to go to college, “just blew my mind.”
Interviewed by James Bennet, editor-in-chief of The Atlantic, the 29-year-old billionaire was careful where he stepped in the minefield of power politics of Washington. He gave the appearance of an open-minded techie with inclusive community values, whose primary wish was to provide a “fundamental service” for people.
Notwithstanding his casual appearance and speech, Zuckerberg’s Facebook is a remarkable achievement. Facebook has 1.15 billion users, “the largest connected community in the history of the species,” said Bennet. On average, 699 million people use Facebook every day.
Zuckerberg’s said his personal goal in life is to bring more people to share and access more information, and help build a “better social fabric.” He sees Facebook and other social media as having a lot of potential to grow. Currently, just over one–third of the people of the world have Internet access, leaving 5 billion without.
“From the world we live in, we would assume it is everyone [with access], but it’s not,” he said.
Zuckerberg is cautiously nonpartisan in his approach as he promotes his cherished ideas. He says he neither identifies with the Democrats nor the Republicans. “I’m pro-knowledge economy,” he said, which drew a lot of laughter from the audience.
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Facebook and NSA
Zuckerberg seemed uncomfortably on the defensive as he explained Facebook’s relationship with the National Security Agency (NSA). At the same time, he criticized the way the federal government has spoken to the press regarding businesses handing over of confidential information.
Zuckerberg said due to NSA’s policy, the public has no idea of the extent to which Facebook honors government information requests. It could be anywhere from 1,000 to 100 million, he said. Facebook is suing the government to be able to release the aggregate number of requests. He implied that the number is a lot smaller than people realize.
“I think the more transparent in communicating with the government to do with about how they are requesting data from us, the better everyone would feel about it,” he said.
Zuckerberg said that Facebook tries to protect its users from surveillance. “We look at every request individually and we push back on the ones that either we think are overly broad or not legal.”
Saying that some of the government’s statements are “profoundly unhelpful,” Zuckerberg perceives the NSA’s statements as throwing a monkey wrench in Facebook’s goal to widen the Internet community.
“’We only spy on non-Americans,’ [says NSA]. Gee thanks. We are trying to provide an international service and not get crushed in any of those places either,” Zuckerberg said.
Immigration and Politics
The primary reason Zuckerberg was in Washington, he said, was to meet with lawmakers on the immigration issue. He had met with both Republican and Democratic leaders in the House before the interview.
“I’m optimistic. But I’m an entrepreneur… Folks in both parties seem to want to move things forward,” he said.
Zuckerberg gave two reasons for why the country needs to enact comprehensive immigration reform.
First, Facebook has an interest in hiring high-skilled immigrants, as do other high tech companies. But current U.S. immigration policy “kicks out” 40 percent of foreign math and science graduate students, and makes far too few H-1B visas available for “talented specialists,” he wrote in an April 10 editorial in the Washington Post.
The second motive is humanitarian. He was taught entrepreneurship in E. Menlo Park, Calif. to some middle school kids after school. He said he was shocked to discover that the brightest had doubts about college. Even going to high school was problematic for some of these undocumented migrants.
“The more I looked into it, the more unfair it seemed,” he said. He concluded, “Eleven million people is a lot of people being treated unfairly now.”
To promote comprehensive immigration reform, his ideas on education, and scientific research, Zuckerberg co-founded a bipartisan lobbying group, Fwd.us. Bennet asked him about the organization’s early advertising. It ran political attack ads, supported conservative candidates who attacked Obamacare, and promoted oil drilling.
Zuckerberg said that that Fwd.us has a “novel structure” which has never been tried before, and that there were still “kinks to work out.”