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“The old saying: There ought to be a law,” he said. “There has to be a law. Unless there’s a law, their business model is going to continue to maximize profit over privacy.”

Mr. Zuckerberg’s appearance before more than 40 senators came after weeks of preparation, and it appeared to pay off, as the executive seemed calm, deferential and prepared. Mr. Zuckerberg offered humor about the company’s onetime mantra: “move fast and break things.” (It has since been edited to “move fast with stable infrastructure.”) He insisted on continuing questions when offered a break, eliciting smiles and laughter from staff sitting behind him. However, when Mr. Zuckerberg did take a break, he left behind his notes, which were quickly photographed and contained talking points for various topics including “Defend Facebook,” “Disturbing Content” and “Election integrity (Russia).”

His performance won accolades on Wall Street. “This is a different Mark Zuckerberg than the Street was fearing,” said Daniel Ives, chief strategy officer and head of technology research for GBH Insights in New York. “It’s a defining 48 hours that will determine the future of Facebook, and so far he has passed with flying colors, and the Street is relieved.”

But Mr. Zuckerberg acknowledged that his idealistic view of humanity, and those of his fellow executives, had exposed Facebook’s roughly 2.2 billion users to danger. Among them: Facebook failed to detect and stop Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, an oversight that Mr. Zuckerberg called “one of my greatest regrets.”

Senator John Thune, Republican of South Dakota and chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, called Facebook and its role in society “extraordinary” and began the hearing by explaining that Facebook and Mr. Zuckerberg were being singled out because of the company’s power.

Mr. Thune said the Cambridge Analytica situation underscored how Facebook could be used for nefarious reasons, saying it appeared “to be the result of people exploiting the tools you created to manipulate users’ information.”

In an indication that he may support legislation for internet companies, Mr. Thune said, “In the past, many of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle have been willing to defer to tech companies’ efforts to regulate themselves. But this may be changing.”