Metro

A congressman asked Mark Zuckerberg if ‘Facemash’ was still up and running

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified on Capitol Hill before the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee.
SHAWN THEW/EPA/Shutterstock
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified on Capitol Hill before the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee.

What you post on the Internet is forever — even for the guy who harbors much of the world’s personal information.

On Wednesday, during his second day of testimony before Congress about the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was asked by Representative Billy Long of Missouri whether a long-ago project — one that preceded Facebook — is still in existence.

“I’d like to ask before I go into my questioning,” Long said during the House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing Wednesday, “what was Facemash, and is it still up and running?”

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If “Facemash” sounds familiar, it should. The project was highlighted in the 2010 film “The Social Network,” based on Facebook’s roots, and is perhaps the earliest example of Zuckerberg’s access to people’s personal information online.

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It was cobbled together by Zuckerberg after a night of drinking while still a student at Harvard, according to a blog he kept at the time. The premise of the site was to let users on campus compare images of two women, side by side, and then vote on which one was most attractive.

Zuckerberg pieced together the site after scraping information from the university’s online facebook directory, a move that landed him before the school’s Administrative Board, according to a 2003 Harvard Crimson article.

He was accused of “breaching security, violating copyrights and violating individual privacy by creating the website,” the story said.

Long’s inquiry was lobbed at the Facebook bigwig as part of a series of questions to “better understand what happens to our personal information online,” he said on Twitter before the hearing.

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Zuckerberg answered the question about Facemash’s history while appearing to stifle a chortle. He then brushed off the site as nothing more than an immature joke between a few friends.

“Facemash was a prank website that I launched in college — in my dorm room — before I started Facebook,” he said. “There was a movie about this — or it said it was about this — it was of unclear truth.”

Zuckerberg later said Facemash and the website that billions of people use today have no relation.

“The claim that Facemash was somehow connected to the development of Facebook — it isn’t, it wasn’t, and Facemash isn’t running,” he said. “Actually, it has nothing to do with Facebook.”

Seeking clarity, Long asked Zuckerberg if his interpretation of Facemash was on target, a question that led to a brief and awkward pause from Zuckerberg.

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“You put up pictures of two women and decide which one was a better, more attractive of the two, is that right?” Long said.

Zuckerberg replied, “Congressman, that is an accurate description of the prank website that I made when I was a sophomore in college.”

The preliminary questioning about Facemash shifted, as Long asked about how Facebook deems what’s “unsafe” for users to view on the platform.

He also gave Zuckerberg a warning.

“Congress is good at two things: doing nothing and overreacting,” Long said. “So far, we’ve done nothing on Facebook. Since your inception in that Harvard dorm room, many years ago, we’ve done nothing on Facebook. We’re getting ready to overreact. So take that as just a shot across the bow.”

Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.