It's been three years since Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg last came to Washington, D.C., so on Wednesday, after visiting with members of Congress, he held a large public interview, where he didn't hold back on a wide range of issues, including immigration reform, the NSA spy scandal, the future of Facebook, and even partisan politics.
"I'm optimistic, but I'm an entrepreneur. You don't go off and try to build something crazy if you are not optimistic fundamentally about the world," he said, referring to immigration reform, during the 40 minute interview. "Of course there are disagreements on specifics, but I've only encountered people who seem like they have good intentions and want to move this forward."
Zuckerberg has been getting more involved with Capitol Hill through his new immigration reform advocacy group FWD.us, so when he spoke with the Atlantic's Editor-in-Chief James Bennett at the Newseum, the discussion began with Zuckerberg's thoughts about the issue. The tech industry's chief interest in immigration reform is to increase the number of skill workers who gain H1-B visas, but Zuckerberg said he is interested in the broader immigration debate via his work with FWD.us.
Other tech industry executives who support FWD.us "agree that addressing and helping out the 11 million undocumented folks is actually a much bigger problem than the high skilled piece that the companies face," Zuckerberg said. "Eleven million people is a lot of people who are being treated unfairly now."
Immigration reform is a very complicated and controversial topic among lawmakers, he observed, but Zuckerberg said he had not noticed a "partisan clash" on Capitol Hill preventing action on the issue.
When asked about his own politics Zuckerberg said "It is hard to affiliate as being Democrat or Republican. I'm pro-knowledge economy," noting that the Internet is moving the global economy from the industrial era to a more technology-driven economy.
In a "knowledge economy" driven by transparency, Zuckerberg explained "the more information that you share, the more informed everyone is and the better ideas can generally spread. If you have an idea I can benefit from that," Zuckerberg said. "The Internet as a backbone for the knowledge economy is going to be important for delivering all those things over time."
On that note Zuckerberg once again called for greater transparency from the National Security Agency (NSA) about its government surveillance program PRISM, which seeks data on the users of international Web services including Facebook, Google and Yahoo. Zuckerberg criticizedthe NSA during a conference on Sept. 11 , telling TechCrunch"the government blew it," by failing to explain details of government surveillance.
"I don't think the answer is no government requests for national security," he said on Wednesday. "We push back on ones that are overbroad or just not legal."
Transparency has also been a problem for Facebook, as users have criticized the social network for the way account information and photos are used in advertisements, and the company faced scrutiny from the Federal Trade Commission in 2011 for failing to properly explain its privacy settings to users.
Reassuring users about Facebook's advertising policies has been a challenge, he said.
"We have not figured out how to communicate that perfectly. The way Internet advertising works is complex," he said. "The way it works is that advertisers tell us what they want to target and then we try within our system to show the best content including ads to the people who are going to find it the most relevant."
Facebook turns 10 years old in 2014, so as Zuckerberg looks to his company's future he said he does not want it venture too broadly into other sectors that the company does not "have the DNA" for, including health or music. The need for people to be connected is not a "first world thing," he said, alluding to his desire to work with other companies and nonprofits on Internet.org to connect the estimated 5 billion people around the world who do not have access to the Internet.
Software and many consumer experiences five or 10 years in the future are going to be designed around people, so he wants to design a social network as the backbone for that rather than make Facebook the one-stop provider for every consumer experience.
"One of the things we need in our society is a digital social fabric," he said. "No one company is ever going to be the whole thing, but I think we can help build it and we can set some examples and some design principles that other companies can use to build a lot of the other services."