Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg found himself in the proverbial hot seat as he was grilled for a marathon 5 hour long hearing in front of the US Congress, as senators from the commerce and judiciary committees pelted questions regarding privacy, data mining, fake news, regulations and the social media giant’s involvement in the recent scandal involving Cambridge Analytica, a British data firm with shady ties to the Russians.
If it sounds like a post-modernist spy film with slightly boring-action-yet-interesting-subplots, you’d be absolutely right.
On April 10th, Zuckerberg traded in his signature plan grey collarless shirt for a sharp suit, muted white shirt and a tie in the Facebook-shade-of-blue and appeared before a Congressional committee that seemed, over the course of the evening, appeared to be both blissfully unaware of the way Facebook collects and monetizes data as well as seemingly ready to ask the tough questions…that no one is really asking. With less than five minutes allotted to each member of the committee, the line of questioning that the 33 year old billionaire had to face barely scratched the surface of the overall problem, with barely any follow up questions – quite unlike the previous instances of the tech world clashing with government, like Bill Gates had to face in 1998.
Similar to the Gates hearing, however, Mark Zuckerberg was asked whether Facebook was a monopoly and actively engaging in anti-competitive practices, which the CEO took lightly and answered with “It doesn’t feel like it”. The floor made it somewhat clear that the committee members were concerned about the seemingly limitless power Facebook currently holds.
Some media outlets called the whole thing a “sham”, while others understood the need for such theatrics in calming an excited population and stock market – while Facebook’s shares were steadily falling before the hearing, the numbers stabilized and even climbed 4.5% afterwards. And while some of the questions might be seemingly hard-hitting on the surface, Zuckerberg’s responses were apologetic – a virulent mix of “I’m sorry”s and “We’re working on it”s.
In Facebook’s 14 years of existence, this seems to have become a cycle that they’ve nearly perfected – Facebook takes user data and either sells/distributes to third party advertisers and/or researchers/data miners, invariably gets caught, goes on a media apology tour and the world moves on with some good humoured meme and vine sharing. But now a line in the sand has been drawn – do not mess with the democratic process of elections. Cambridge Analytica’s data mining of nearly 87 million Facebook users with the help of researcher Aleksandr Kogan and alleged ties to the Donald Trump presidential campaign was an eye-opener – that social media is now plays an important enough role in the lives of people, enough to affect election results and who you’re likely to vote for.
So when the public audience at the hearing erupts into laughter following Zuckerberg’s “no” to a question fielded by Democrat Dick Durbin – “Would you be comfortable sharing with us the name of the hotel you stayed in last night?” – it’s enough to make most people’s skin crawl. If there’s anything to take away from the hearing, it’s that people might care less about their data privacy than Facebook does.
Democrat Richard Blumenthal put the Facebook CEO under some amount of stress when he said, “We’ve seen the apology tours before. You have refused to acknowledge even an ethical violation to report this violation of the FTC consent decree. My reservation about your testimony today is that I don’t see how you can change your business model unless there are specific rules of the road. Your business model is to maximise profit over privacy.”
Another senator pointed out how Zuckerberg’s second in command, Sheryl Sandberg, went on morning TV and talked about getting users to pay if they wanted to opt out of having their data shared with third parties, to which he gave yet another vague answer. Much of the hearing saw Zuckerberg deflecting questions and trying to run out the clock, while driving home Facebook’s mission statement of “connecting people and letting ideas foster”.
Republican Ted Cruz picked up on that and gave Zuckerberg an equally hard time about the “liberal bias” of Facebook’s team of content moderators, who are seemingly more prone to taking down conservative viewpoints like those of Christian evangelists than regulating liberals and their Planned Parenthood pages. To which Zuckerberg replied “Palo Alto is one of the most liberal places on earth”…forgetting, for a moment perhaps, that Facebook is as global an entity as any.
But liberal biases and vague answers aside, the young CEO was forced to clear out the Cambridge Analytica issue as much as he could. Zuckerberg initially claimed there was no scope for blocking Cambridge Analytica from being on Facebook in 2015 when their activities were first brought to light, as CA maintained no pages and was neither a developer nor an advertiser.
However, after taking some time to consult his team, Zuckerberg clarified: “[From] what my understanding was … they were not on the platform, [they] were not an app developer or advertiser. When I went back and met with my team afterwards, they let me know that Cambridge Analytica actually did start as an advertiser later in 2015. So we could have in theory banned them then. We made a mistake by not doing so. But I just wanted to make sure that I updated that because I … I … I misspoke, or got that wrong earlier.”
Cambridge Analytica’s data mining of nearly 87 million Facebook users with the help of researcher Aleksandr Kogan and alleged ties to the Donald Trump presidential campaign was an eye-opener – that social media is now plays an important enough role in the lives of people, enough to affect election results and who you’re likely to vote for.
Senator Leahy took a line of questioning that struck close to home for South Asia: “… six months ago, I asked your general counsel about Facebook’s role as a breeding ground for hate speech against Rohingya refugees. Recently, U.N. investigators blamed Facebook for playing a role in inciting possible genocide in Myanmar. And there has been genocide there. You say you use A.I. to find this. This is the type of content I’m referring to. It calls for the death of a Muslim journalist. Now, that threat went straight through your detection systems, it spread very quickly, and then it took attempt after attempt after attempt, and the involvement of civil society groups, to get you to remove it.”
In response, Zuckerberg laid out a plan – “There are three specific things that we’re doing… hiring dozens of Burmese-language content reviewers, because hate speech is very language-specific…working with civil society in Myanmar to identify specific hate figures so we can take down their accounts…standing up a product team to do specific product changes in Myanmar and other countries that may have similar issues in the future to prevent this from happening.”
With the initial hearing ending on a note of regret and taking responsibility on Facebook’s part and Zuckerberg promising more involvement in finding the “right kind of regulation” that could work for what is essentially a social media monopoly, one thing is clear – there is a long way to go for Facebook in developing a mature, effective and trustworthy system that balances profitability with privacy, freedom of expression and accountability, and nearly everything in-between. Considering the role social media has begun to play in our daily lives, it’s vital that tech companies like Facebook get their act together and bridge the gaping chasms that they have unintentionally created.