What to take away from Mark Zuckerberg's Congress hearings

What to take away from Mark Zuckerberg's Congress hearings

Mark Zuckerberg, boy king of the internet, has had his sessions before congress, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee and House Committee on Energy and Commerce. The Facebook CEO had to defend his empire's data practices as well as convince lawmakers that Facebook could be trusted in the future.

The monarch of Menlo Park spent hours being grilled by senators, and if you have the time to catch up on the whole thing, you can find video links to both hearings here. Fair warning, it's not easy to sit through the majority of clumsy questions and slimy evasions to get to the good bits.

Nonetheless, I found several points of interest that provide some food for thought about the future of Facebook and our data. In the true spirit of Facebook, let me present a 'curation' of my highlights from the Zuck's testimony for your scrolling pleasure.

Mark Zuckerberg suits up, sits up

Much is made of Mark's boyish appearance in the press, and I'll admit I wasn't above it myself in the opener here, but it does look like he did his best to come across as grown-up as possible in the senate hearings. I was really hoping to see Zuck rock up and face the music in his signature grey t-shirt and hoodie, but the Facebook CEO dug the apology suit out of his wardrobe.

That's how we know things got serious. Unfortunately, the grown-up act was somewhat undermined by the rather high cushion on his chair. Whatever the comfort or advantage of this elevation, Zuckerberg of all people should have remembered that social media exists, and people on it can be kind of mean:

Haha, yes. But before we may be tempted to infantilize the Facebook CEO and let him off the hook for youthful naivity or hijinks, let's remember that he's actually a 5'7" 33 year old father. I, a younger man, managed not to undermine democracy and compromise the privacy of millions in the last couple of years. Zuckerberg can do the same.

A Facebook spokesperson told the New York Post that it was “the committee’s standard practice” for comfort, and not a ploy Facebook or Zuckerberg himself to enhance his height. Basically, a demonstration of Congress' unwillingness to bust Mark's ass, in any sense of the phrase.

The CEO's own data was stolen

How special is Mark Zuckerberg's own Facebook account? Recent events have revealed the CEO's special powers, such as being able to 'Unsend' private messages on Facebook. But when it comes to data harvesting, the snake is not immune to its own poison.

Yes, Mark Zuckerberg's own data was sold to a malicious third party, according to an answer he gave to the Democratic representative Anna Eshoo. Which third party? Facebook isn't telling, but it could well be GSR, the company started by the Cambridge University researcher Alexsandr Kogan. 

Despite this, Zuckerberg isn't cavalier about his own private information. Senator Dick Durbin asked if Zuckerberg would be comfortable sharing the name of the hotel he stayed in the night before.

“No. I would probably not choose to do that publicly, here” he replied. “I think everyone should have control over how their information is used.”

Regulation is on the cards - but who will shape it?

"My position is not that there should be no regulation."

"I think the real question, as the internet becomes more important in people’s lives, is what is the right regulation, not whether there should be or not."

Statements straight from Mark Zuckerberg's mouth. The Facebook founder has mentioned regulation ever since his first initial public addressing of the Cambridge Analytica scandal in his CNN interview. This is a shrewd move on Zuckerberg's part. The faster Facebook takes the initiative on regulation, the more it can control it.

Senators and representatives agree that new regulations would be an appropriate response to the scandal. Frank Pallone, the ranking member of the house committee on energy and commerce,  stated in his opening remarks. "I was happy to hear Mr Zuckerberg concede that his industry needed to be regulated. We need comprehensive privacy and data protection legislation."

It would be a mistake, however, to simply ask Zuckerberg what kind of regulation he thinks would be appropriate. A mistake that several lawmakers appeared to be happy to make regardless. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, openly asked for Zuckerberg’s assistance in writing regulations on tech platforms. Representative Fred Upton also asked Zuckerberg what regulation he would like to see.

As an example of the kind of regulations Facebook might face, multiple representatives asked Zuckerberg whether or not he would enforce the EU's GDPR for Americans. Interestingly, while Zuckerberg praised GDPR, he promised "controls" along the same lines for Americans, rather than "protections".

Partisan politics played a role

In a time when America feels more divided among partisan political lines than ever, it seems that both Republicans and Democrats believe that Facebook works behind the scenes to unfairly benefit the other side.

Senator Ted Cruz appeared concerned that Facebook suppressed right-leaning content and asked about Facebook’s handling of conservative media, including content related to Glenn Beck and a Fox News personality. Democrats, on the other hand, had issues with Facebook's slow and ineffective response to Russian interference in the election.

While their specific reasons may differ, it's good to see that both sides of the aisles can see problems with Facebook. Whether they can work together for a solution, on the other hand, remains to be seen. Whatever Zuckerberg's personal political philosophy on social issues, Facebook as a corporation has been shown to reliably act in its self-interest, with the bottom line as the highest ideal.

Facebook Zuckerberg
Mark Zuckerberg in more carefree times, unscarred by Senate hearings. / © Facebook

It's not just about privacy, but monopoly

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, shot straight with an incisive question: "Who is your biggest competitor?"

"If I buy a Ford, and it doesn’t work well and I don’t like it, I can buy a Chevy,” Graham continued. “If I’m upset with Facebook, what’s the equivalent product I can go sign up for?"

"You don’t feel like you have a monopoly?"

Zuckerberg's snarky response, "It certainly doesn’t feel that way to me," elicited laughter from Senate Judiciary Committee. While senior lawmakers like Graham may not have the technical expertise to understand Facebook's processes, it doesn't take a whiz-kid to identify a big problem.

Graham's words to reporters after the hearing were surprising considering his party membership: “If we are counting on Facebook regulating itself, we’re going to fail. … I am a Republican. I don’t like regulating things unless you have to, but to me, you’ve got a very large organization without any real competition."

Peter Thiel's Palantir remains in the shadows

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., a former vice president of the long-departed web video company RealNetworks, zeroed on Palantir Technologies, the surveillance company chaired by Facebook board member Peter Thiel.

Palantir works on big data analysis, similar to Cambridge Analytica. It’s been used by police departments and the National Security Agency. Palantir founder and Facebook board member Peter Thiel is a strong supporter of Trump and is skeptical about the benefits of democracy. The fact that Thiel, with Palantir in his hands, could sit at Facebook meetings concerning the handling of sensitive political data should rightly be a concern of lawmakers.

“I’m not really familiar with what Palantir does,” said Zuckerberg. Thiel's heart must be truly broken at this disregard from his business partner.

Zuckberg claimed that Palantir, didn’t have access to Facebook data which contradicts statements from a former Palantir employee. In March, whistleblower Christopher Wiley testified to the UK parliament that Palantir employees worked with Cambridge Analytica to turn the wrongfully obtained Facebook data into models for its voter-targeting ads. Palantir also told the New York Times that one of its employees helped Cambridge Analytica in a personal capacity.

What Zuckerberg wasn't willing to answer

The sharpest questions of all came from California Democrat  Sen. Kamala Harris, who attempted to tease out the details behind the decisions to disclose Cambridge Analytica’s misuse of user data. While Zuckerberg eventually admitted that Facebook leaders did have a meeting about the issue, he claimed not to know when the meeting was, who was in it, or exactly how this decision was made.

Zuckerberg also refused to say whether Facebook tracks browser activity and activity across different devices, even when the user has logged off the site, before conceding to the house Facebook tracks this information, but that most users understand and approve of it. The Facebook CEO carefully noted that browsing information is not part of "your content" – i.e. not something that the user uploads to Facebook. Regardless, it's still something that most users will be giving up to Facebook without explicit consent.

So far, a soft touch

Barring the occasional pointed question, it was difficult to get a sense of any meaningful resolution to Facebook's problems with fake news, hate speech, monopoly and misuse of private data. With only 5 minutes per questioner, Zuck's dunking stayed strictly in the shallow end. 

What we're left with after two official hearings isn't much more than what we had at the end of the CNN interview. Apology, evasion, a promise that everything will be fine if we just Facebook time and space to fix itself. Zuckerberg, philosopher-king of Online, will reform his kingdom.

It remains to be seen whether the coming days will shake the high-cushioned throne.

What do you think? Did Congress ask the right questions? Can Zuckerberg be trusted to reform Facebook?


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  • Rusty H. Apr 13, 2018 Link to comment

    Congress/Senate show how out of touch they are, with the American people, technology etc. And THESE are the people we "trust" to do the business of government. On a side note, you watch how FB starts paying TONS of money, to lobbyist to lobby for favor from government. Sort of the same thing happened, decades ago with Microsoft and IE. They had no real presence in DC with lobbying. After MS was called on the carpet, now they are one of the bigger lobbyist in DC. Betcha Facebook does the same thing. Once a business gets "too big" and isn't playing the DC game, congress/senate will call them to DC, have a nice little circus, then once they start shelling out tons of money to k-street lobbyist, who funnel that money to the senators & congress...they'll back off.

    Don't think that is true? Then explain how these clowns in DC, one of the most EXPENSIVE places to live, can become millionaires, in a very short time, on $200,000 dollars per year, maintain 2 homes (one in the DC area, one in their own district).

  • Albin Foro Apr 13, 2018 Link to comment

    I was able to watch a lot of it, interesting the House dummies were more on the ball than the Senate wisefolk. Looks like Zuck dodged having this become the cigarette addiction hearing for social media, but it may come later, after which users will have to puff away together outside on the sidewalk instead of with other people. Two big questions for me are a) whether FB is seriously exposed to heavy fines under the FTC consent decree, and b) how onerous are the German regulations, since USA's will be lighter if anything? In several past cases Google, Microsoft, and Apple have extended EU privacy rules to worldwide operations and then acted like heroes for doing it.