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Mark Zuckerberg's big moment before Congress is here

Mark Zuckerberg is stepping onto a public stage he has spent the past few months trying to avoid at all costs.
Image: Mark Zuckerberg appears before a joint Senate hearing on Capitol Hill
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg appears before a joint Senate hearing on Capitol Hill on April 11, 2018.David Butow / for NBC News

It's a moment Mark Zuckerberg tried to avoid, but the Facebook CEO began taking questions on Tuesday from a firing squad of lawmakers keen to get answers about the company’s data privacy efforts.

The notoriously private Zuckerberg, 33, gave a brief opening statement before the Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees, expressing personal accountability for the Cambridge Analytica scandal and a desire to take a "broader view" of Facebook's responsibility to its users, a common sentiment throughout his apology tour over the past week.

"It was my mistake and I'm sorry," Zuckerberg told lawmakers.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) said Zuckerberg and Facebook have a history of apologizing. He called the company out on "a pattern of lax data practices" and asked why Facebook didn't alert users when it first learned Cambridge Analytica may have used data harvested from Facebook users.

"When we heard back from Cambridge Analytica, that they had told us they weren't using the data and deleted it, we considered it a closed case," Zuckerberg said. "In retrospect, it was a mistake."

Zuckerberg is used to the glare of the spotlight, but only when it's something he can control, such as sharing positive Facebook news or talking about his philanthropy.

Image: Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify before a Senate hearing
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg takes his seat before a joint hearing of the Commerce and Judiciary Committees on Capitol Hill.Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

At times he stumbled or repeated familiar talking points. At other points, he seemed more in his element, talking about how artificial intelligence and the potential for it to help better weed out hate speech on Facebook in the future. The problem right now, Zuckerberg said, is training that AI to recognize nuances in every language on Facebook.

There have been questions about Zuckerberg's leadership, a topic that could come up during the hearings over Tuesday and Wednesday from lawmakers who may wonder if Facebook and its leader have become too powerful for their own good.

As the chairman and CEO of Facebook, Zuckerberg wields unparalleled influence over the company, including the majority of voting shares, making a coup nearly impossible. Zuckerberg is showing no signs of wanting to fire himself. He told NBC News last week he still believes he's the best person to run Facebook.

"The reality of this is when you're building something like Facebook, there are going to be things you mess up. I don't think anyone is going to be perfect, but I think everyone should learn from mistakes and continuing to be better,” he said.

Zuckerberg's testimony is his first time before the United States government and a long-time coming after 18 months of scandals, ranging from election meddling to user privacy. He's spent months wriggling his way out of invitations from Congress, instead sending the company's general counsel.