Mark Zuckerberg appeared before Congress on Wednesday (again) and anyone watching proceedings could be forgiven for thinking Facebook is now at the epicenter of US politics.
In the apparent absence of any meaningful agenda for the day’s proceedings, or perhaps to disguise their lack of knowledge, Representatives fielded questions on issues ranging from hate speech, data privacy, diversity and housing to censorship, artificial intelligence, Russian agents and opioids.
The extent of polarization around some of these issues was exposed during the election of 2016 and Congress, in its seeming inability to resolve these issues offline, held Zuckerberg to task for failing to resolve them in binary.
Zuckerberg, devoid of a solution to the United States’ fundamental divisions along moral, economic and social lines, resorted to perpetually reiterating “that’s an important question” and “l can certainly have my team get back to you on that”.
Upon analysis of some of the questions asked during the hearing, it’s almost difficult to blame him for adopting such an evasive approach.
At around 11:15 a.m., Congressman Hudson, in a tone which suggested this was a question he already knew the answer to, questioned Zuckerberg on what standards are employed by Facebook to determine what qualifies as hate speech.
“That is something that we struggle with continuously,” said Zuckerberg, while perhaps questioning why he’s being asked to define something lawmakers struggle to legislate over.
Later in the afternoon Congressman Butterfield, while seemingly oblivious to the inadequate representation of African-Americans on the committee, questioned “do you plan to add an African-American to you leadership team in future?”
While Zuckerberg was non-committal on the issue, Congressman Butterfield gave no indication whether he’d be willing to sacrifice his own position, or those of his employees, to pave the way for his ideals.
Not to be outdone, Congressman McKinley then questioned Zuckerberg on why Facebook is facilitating the illegal sale of opioids on its platform.
“Your platform is still being used to circumvent the law and allow people to buy highly addictive drugs without prescription,” said Congressman McKinley.
Zuckerberg agreed there “[are] a number of areas of that [Facebook needs] to do a better job policing” but perhaps he should have pointed to McKinley’s own efforts in West Virginia which, according to his own website “[has] the highest rate of drug overdose deaths in the country”.
Why was McKinley holding Zuckerberg to task for his inability to handle the illegal trade in opioids on Facebook when he has thus far been incapable of stemming such problems in his own state?
Moreover, what makes Congressman McKinley, and the rest of the committee for that matter, believe the virtual world is anything more than an extension of the physical world?
If Facebook, as some would have it, was deleted tomorrow, the opioid trade would likely still prosper, albeit through different channels.
Perhaps we’d all be better served if Representatives focused less on easily identifiable targets like Facebook and more on the root of the problems within their own physical jurisdictions.
After all, according to a survey by Deutsche Bank Markets Research, very few Facebook users have left the platform, which perhaps suggests this topic isn’t exactly high on the list of voter priorities.
A similar admission was made by Senator Johnson yesterday when he stated “So it’s kind of safe to say that Facebook users don’t seem to be overly concerned about all these revelations, although obviously Congress apparently is”.
Moreover, and owed to the inability of Congress to hone in on any particular issue, it was difficult at times to determine whether this was a hearing on data privacy or a ceremonial transfer of sovereignty to the de facto President of the new digital frontier.
This ceremonial transfer of sovereignty took on a more official status when elected representatives began asking Zuckerberg how he believes his corporation should be regulated and what aspects of GDPR should be brought to the US.
“I think the GDPR in general is going to be a very positive step for the internet,” said Zuckerberg.
This broadly mirrored his comments from yesterday, when he said he was open to the “right regulation”. Then again as well he should be, as seemingly he’s the one being asked to determine what such regulation should look like.
The quote of the afternoon belonged to Congressman Johnson who said “Congress is good at two things: doing nothing and overreacting. We’re getting ready to overreact”. Zuckerberg, meanwhile, was perhaps mentally questioning whether that moment has long since passed.
Despite a general lack of central purpose, the proceedings did unearth a few interesting titbits about the nature of Facebook’s business model.
In perhaps the fiercest exchange of the day, Congressman Lujan asked “Facebook has detailed profiles on people who have never signed up for Facebook, yes or no?”
In response Zuckerberg stated “in general we collect data on people who have not signed up for Facebook for security purposes to prevent the kind of scraping you were just referring to” and, after being pressed by Congressman Lujan, he also acknowledged he isn’t “familiar [with] shadow profiles”.
When Congressman Lujan questioned Zuckerberg on whether he knows how many points of data Facebook stores on the average user, Zuckerberg responded by stating “I do not know off the top of my head”.
Armed with the statistics, Congressman Lujan told Zuckerberg the number is 29,000. Congressman Lujan then went onto say “You’ve said everyone controls their data, but you’re collecting data on people who are not even Facebook users who have never signed a consent, a privacy agreement”.
The exchange gave perhaps the clearest indication over how little transparency the average user has in relation to the data Facebook stores on them.
Some of the other key moments:
- Congressman Flores served up something of a rhetorical question when he asked “Isn’t it the consumer’s responsibility to control the content they release?”
- Congresswoman DeGette cited a number of settled class-action lawsuits, including Lane v Facebook from 2010, in which users received little or no compensation. In response to Zuckerberg being unable to recall the specific examples she cited, she also stated “The reason you probably don’t remember is because the FTC doesn’t have the authority to issue penalties for first-time violations”.
- Congresswoman Schakowsky pushed Zuckerberg on whether Kogan had sold data to other companies, to which Zuckerberg responded “I don’t believe it was a large number, but as we complete the audits, we will know more”. Upon being questioned what constitutes a “large number”, Zuckerberg said “a handful”.
- Congressman Engel questioned whether Facebook plans to sue Kogan, Cambridge Analytica or Cambridge University. After stating legal action is being considered, Zuckerberg also revealed “what we found now is that there’s a whole programme associated with Cambridge University…there were a number of other researchers building similar apps”.
- Congressman Peters remarked “technology has outpaced the law in terms of the protection of private information”
- Congressman Sarbanes questioned whether Zuckerberg is aware of the relative share of ads approved on behalf of the Trump and Clinton campaigns. Congressman Sarbanes emphasized the number was 5.9 million for Trump and 66,000 for Clinton. He then questioned whether any special approval rights were granted to either campaign.
- Congresswoman Eshoo questioned whether Zuckerberg’s personal data was comprised, to which he responded “yes”.
- Congresswoman Eshoo utilized a range of disparaging and emotive terms in her characterisation of Facebook and the situation it finds itself in, including “weaponised”, “cynical manipulation”, “deeply offensive”, “very dangerous”, “irresponsible”, etc.
- Congressman Johnson took a similar line of questioning as many other Republican Representatives and decided to field a question on behalf of Trump supporters and conservatives Diamond and Silk: “What is unsafe about two black women supporting President Donald Trump?” Zuckerberg also stated Facebook has removed liberal content from its platform too.
- Congressman Bucshon reiterated concerns about Facebook tracking users’ microphones, to which Zuckerberg responded ““We’re not collecting any information verbally”.
- A number of Representatives attempted to draw parallels between how Cambridge Analytica and the Obama campaign acquired and utilized data.
- Congresswoman Castor stated “a devil’s bargain has been struck. American’s don’t like to be manipulated….Facebook has evolved to a place where you are tracking everything…you are collecting personal information on people who don’t even have Facebook accounts”.
- Congressman Harper stated “shouldn’t people be equally outraged…that the Obama campaign used their data in 2012?”
- In response to a question from Congressman Latta, Zuckerberg stated it could take “many months” before Facebook has investigated all apps which had access to its API before it instigated changes in 2014.