Some tech workers tuning in to Mr. Zuckerberg’s hourslong session some 2,500 miles away on Tuesday said they cringed at his interrogators, worried that their understanding of the internet could result in poorly crafted or overly burdensome regulation.
Sen. Brian Schatz (D., Hawaii) mistook WhatsApp, Facebook’s popular text-messaging tool, for an email service. Sen. Roger Wicker (R., Miss.) asked for clarification when Mr. Zuckerberg referred to internet service providers as the “pipes” of the internet. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R., W.Va.) asked whether Facebook could provide West Virginia with “fiber”—a service the company doesn’t offer.
“It’s a reminder of how far Silicon Valley has to go to educate policy makers and the public about our companies and products,” said Rebecca Reeve, CEO of public-relations firm Rsquared Communication, which represents tech startups such as messaging company Slack Technologies Inc. and streamed all four hours of the hearings on an office television.
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Government officials and tech executives have a long history of poor communication. But the pressure to educate the public and find a common language is growing with the threat of greater government oversight. The congressional testimony, extending into Wednesday, is as much a public examination of the tech industry as it is a questioning of Facebook.
During Tuesday’s hearing, Sen. John Thune (R., S.D.) and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa) both said federal intervention in tech platforms might be necessary. Or as Sen. John Kennedy (R., La.) put it, “I don’t want to vote to have to regulate Facebook, but by God I will.”
The talk of regulation bothered George Arison, a founder of used-car-buying website Shift Technologies Inc.
“Most people in Congress don’t have a clue about what [tech] actually does,” he said. “That’s a very dangerous situation to be in.”
Michael Fertik, founder of venture firm Heroic Ventures and privacy-management firm Reputation.com Inc., said he worries that lawmakers aren’t asking Facebook tough questions. Change is overdue, he said, but he worries Congress will cripple young startups with carelessly crafted rules.
“They will make it hard for startups to compete with Facebook,” he said.
Mr. Zuckerberg mostly remained poised as he answered questions from the senators, many more than twice his age, but having to repeatedly explain how Facebook works left him seeming agitated at times. During one exchange, Sen. Kennedy asked whether Facebook would allow users to have certain controls over their data. Mr. Zuckerberg replied, seven times, that Facebook already does.
Sen. Gary Peters (D., Mich.) asked whether Facebook is using the microphones of users’ phones to listen in to what they are doing and saying—a charge the company has denied repeatedly in recent months.
“You’re talking about this conspiracy theory,” a slightly animated Mr. Zuckerberg answered. “We don’t do that.”
Chris Nolan, founder of ad-buying firm Spot-On, which works with tech companies, said Mr. Zuckerberg risks coming across as a “smarty-pants” from Silicon Valley.
“I don’t think that is going to serve Facebook well in the long run,” she said. “Congress likes to see conciliation and humility.”
Other techies, like Erik Charlton, said they didn’t expect Capitol Hill to be as technically sophisticated as Silicon Valley.
‘I don’t want to vote to have to regulate Facebook, but by God I will.’
“There’s going to be a period of us learning to speak together through shared understanding,” said Mr. Charlton, the CEO of smart-home lighting startup Noon Home Inc.
The Wall Street reaction to Mr. Zuckerberg’s testimony was largely positive; Facebook shares rose 4.5% Tuesday.
Mr. Zuckerberg “absolutely hit it over the fence,” said Shad Rowe, general partner at Dallas-based Greenbrier Partners Capital, a long-term holder of Facebook shares. He described Mr. Zuckerberg as patient, composed and “completely in charge of the conversation.”
Two weeks ago, in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica revelations, Mr. Rowe sent his firm’s investors a letter criticizing Facebook’s handling of user data, but Mr. Zuckerberg’s congressional performance persuaded him to hold his shares.
“I don’t want to sell,” he said Tuesday. “I think Zuck is a hard guy to bet against. He’s always kind of comes through.”
—Betsy Morris and Georgia Wells contributed to this article.