Zuckerberg survived Washington but what is Washington going to do about Facebook?
Mark Zuckerberg answered questions about Facebook’s data collection and privacy policies this week from almost 100 different politicians in nearly 10 hours of public testimony.
The hearings had it all. One lawmaker literally held up the U.S. Constitution at Zuckerberg and recited the First Amendment. Another asked him about his college hot-or-not service, Facemash. Others asked more nuanced questions about how Facebook moderates content on its service, while still others didn’t seem to understand how Facebook operates at all.
If you want an abbreviated version of what Zuckerberg talked about in Washington, D.C. this week, and what lies in store for Facebook (spoiler: regulation), here’s a summary of the plot points you need to know.
Almost everybody wants to regulate Facebook
One thing that became clear over the past two days is that almost every politician in Washington sounds like they want to regulate Facebook. It was one of the most dominant questions throughout the ten hours of testimony, with numerous politicians asking Zuckerberg if he would commit to helping lawmakers create some form of new rules around data collection and privacy. The mere fact that politicians are asking for Zuckerberg’s help in drafting new laws could certainly work in Facebook’s favor.
“Here’s what’s going to happen — there are going to be a whole bunch of bills introduced to regulate Facebook,” Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) told Zuckerberg on Tuesday. “It’s up to you whether they pass or not. You can go back home [and] spend $10 million on lobbyists and fight us, or you can go back home and help us solve this problem.”
It’s still unclear what any regulation of Facebook would actually look like
What regulation might look like is still up in the air. We heard politicians talk about three separate bills throughout the two days: The Honest Ads Act to regulate online political advertising; The Consent Act, which would require users to opt-in to share information with tech companies versus sharing it by default; and a similar sounding bill called the Browser Act.
There doesn’t appear to be a consensus around any one idea. The suggestion of changing Facebook’s default privacy settings from opt-out to opt-in, meaning the company would need to ask for permission to collect data right away instead of collecting it by default, seems like it would be the most dangerous to Facebook. It would severely limit the amount of data they can collect about people, thus hurting their business.
But even then, there’s no saying that would get the support needed to become more than a proposal.
“We need to asses what we heard and get answers to questions that were not answered, and then evaluate who else we need to here from,” Congressman Greg Walden (R- Ore.), chairman of the House Commerce Committee, told reporters after the end of the hearing on Wednesday. “If you put the consumer first, and the companies put the consumer first, you won’t have a huge need for additional regulatory authority. But if you don’t, then we will have to step in.”
Zuckerberg says he thinks the new EU privacy regulations are a good thing
Zuckerberg promised Congress that Facebook will roll out the strict GDPR privacy regulations that will be required in the EU beginning next month to all of Facebook’s users around the world. That’s smart. That kind of approach might limit the desire for more formal regulation in the U.S. if Facebook is seen as already “regulating” itself.
Zuckerberg even said he thought GDPR was a good idea. He might as well — the regulations are coming whether he supports them or not.
“I think the GDPR, in general, is going to be a very positive step for the internet,” he said on Wednesday.
Mark Zuckerberg looked good
Facebook should feel good about how Zuckerberg handled himself over the two days of testimony. He was poised, respectful, and didn’t appear to be caught off guard or flustered by any of the questions thrown at him. The House hearing on Wednesday was certainly more aggressive than the Senate hearing, at least at the beginning. Zuckerberg looked shakiest in the first 90 minutes or so Wednesday morning while dealing with a bunch of angry House members, but he seemed to settle down by the end of the session. I don’t think you can walk away from these hearings feeling worse about Zuckerberg or Facebook than you already did.
Zuckerberg reminded everyone that Facebook is responsible for what people post
“I agree that we’re responsible for the content.” That was Zuckerberg on Tuesday confirming that, yes, Facebook is responsible for the stuff people post to the service. It’s a bold admission, even if everyone already knew that to be the case. Of course Facebook is responsible for what people post. That’s why they take down certain posts that are too violet, or racist, or graphic.
But there is a parallel thinking that Facebook is also just a platform — a place where anyone can post pretty much anything. All ideas are welcome. Being responsible for everything people say while also trying not to infringe on what they are saying is an impossible balance to strike. It’s why Zuckerberg said recently that he is “fundamentally uncomfortable” making content decisions for Facebook. That’s not a great combination.
It’s also noteworthy that the CEO of Facebook is saying this out loud on the record in front of Congress. It might become fodder for future lawsuits from anyone upset about content being taken down, or not taken down.
Is Facebook a monopoly?
When asked bluntly by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) on Tuesday if Facebook was a monopoly, Zuckerberg replied, “It certainly doesn’t feel like that to me.”
I’m not sure many people agree with Zuckerberg on that one. The idea that Facebook is a monopoly was floated in one shape or form multiple times this week. When asked who Facebook’s biggest competition is, Zuckerberg didn’t have a great answer. Obviously Google competes with Facebook for digital ad dollars, and there are other social services out there —mainly Twitter — but nobody offers anything close to the size and service combination that Facebook does.
Lawmakers still don’t really understand how Facebook works
It was clear from the questions this week that a lot of the lawmakers don’t full understand how Facebook’s business or services work. Late in the hearing on Wednesday, after a combined nine hours of testimony had already happened, Congressman Chris Collins (R – N.Y.) said that he was glad to finally clear up the fact that Facebook doesn’t sell its user data. That’s the kind of thing anyone could have learned about Facebook years ago.
It’s easy to chastise lawmakers for not having a firmer grasp of how this stuff works. But the reality is that, with well over two billion users, it’s likely that there are a lot of Facebook users who don’t understand how the business or services actually work. That’s on Facebook and it’s clear the company needs to be more proactive about explaining its privacy settings and rules to people so they don’t have to hunt for them.
Who else has the Cambridge Analytica data set?
In an exchange with Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), Zuckerberg admitted that Aleksandr Kogan, the professor who collected the Facebook data that was then sold to Cambridge Analytica, also sold that data to other firms. When Schakowsky asked how many others, Zuckerberg replied: “I don’t believe it was a large number, but as we complete the audits we will know more.”
“What’s a large number?” Shakowsky then asked.
“A handful,” he replied.
The fact Zuckerberg was so cagey makes me think there is a lot more here to uncover. So far, Cambridge Analytica has been the only real target of all the press and attention. Facebook has mentioned just one other company that I am aware of, Eunoia Technologies, where the whistleblower Christopher Wylie later worked. If there are others, who are they? And what happened to the data?
Zuckerberg says his own data was collected by Cambridge Analytica
Zuckerberg is just like us! He says that his own data was included in the batch of personal info that was sold to Cambridge Analytica. That’s all the context we have, but it’s an interesting tidbit. See if you’re like Zuckerberg and find out if your data was shared with Cambridge Analytica.
Artificial intelligence will solve all of Facebook’s problems
At least that’s what Zuckerberg told lawmakers — over and over and over again. Every time a politician asked how Facebook was planning to clean up inappropriate content from the site, or stop bad actors from creating fake accounts, Zuckerberg said Facebook is building more AI “tools” to stop those kinds of things. The problem right now is that those AI “tools” are not perfect, and stuff keeps slipping through the cracks. One congressman, Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), even held up his phone during the testimony to show Zuckerberg a fake profile someone had created for him that was “extorting people for money.”
Until this AI software is perfected, there will be errors and mistakes. Facebook is simply too big to police itself with humans.
Will other tech CEOs be summoned to Washington, too?
It certainly sounds like it. After Wednesday’s hearing, Walden said “we’ll talk about hearings from other CEOs, too,” though he didn’t specify who he had in mind. (Heads up Google and Twitter.)
Congressman Frank Pallone, the ranking Democrat on the House Commerce Committee echoed that sentiment: “I would certainly encourage [bringing in more CEOs],” Pallone said. “We need more hearings.”
Want to rewatch the action? Here are all nine hours of the hearings below.
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