Zuck in DC: What We Learned about Facebook's Data Practices
Facebook CEO and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg faces a second day of grilling before Congress today. Yesterday, Zuckerberg spent five hours fielding questions about how his company handles users' personal data and how it plans to prevent others from misusing that information to spread false news stories, manipulate public opinion, fuel hate, and affect elections.
In what many noted was poetic irony, considering the large volume of private data Facebook gathers about its users, Zuckerberg's printed notes from yesterday's hearings were captured in a photograph by AP photographer Andrew Harnik. Among other things, the snapshot revealed Zuckerberg's prepared responses to "attack" comments by officials ("Respectfully, I reject that. Not who we are.") and acknowledgments that the company has been slow in improving how it handles data.
Zuckerberg was called to testify following multiple news reports in recent weeks detailing how Facebook data was used without people's knowledge to target likely voters for President Donald Trump ahead of the 2016 election, drive misinformation campaigns by malicious actors in Russia and elsewhere, and enable ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people in Myanmar.
Facebook 'Doesn't Feel Like' a Monopoly
A number of observers concluded that Zuckerberg generally handled the questioning well during his appearance before a joint meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee and Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. Others criticized senators for asking softball questions or revealing how little they understood about the technical complexities they were investigating.
However, some questions clearly put Zuckerberg on the spot. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R, South Carolina), for example, asked whether Facebook has any meaningful competition.
"If I buy a Ford, and it doesn't work well, and I don't like it, I can buy a Chevy," Graham noted. "If I'm upset with Facebook, what's the equivalent product that I can go sign up for? . . . Is there an alternative to Facebook in the private sector?"
Zuckerberg responded by first noting that "[t]he average American uses eight different apps to communicate with their friends and stay in touch with people." When Graham pressed him on whether he believed Facebook was a monopoly, Zuckerberg said, "It certainly doesn't feel like that to me."
'I'm Sorry. I'm Responsible'
Today, Zuckerberg is answering questions from members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Much of the conversation during both days is focused on Facebook's recent admission that the personal information of up to 87 million users was "improperly shared" with Cambridge Analytica, the U.K.-based political consulting firm that worked for Trump's 2016 election campaign.
On Monday, Facebook began informing users via their News Feeds whether their data might have been shared with Cambridge Analytica. This week, the company has also announced a new initiative to support research on social media impact on elections as well as a new bounty payment system for reports regarding misuse of data by app developers.
"[I]t's clear now that we didn't do enough to prevent these tools from being used for harm, as well," Zuckerberg said during his opening statements yesterday. "And that goes for fake news, for foreign interference in elections, and hate speech, as well as developers and data privacy. We didn't take a broad enough view of our responsibility, and that was a big mistake. And it was my mistake. And I'm sorry. I started Facebook, I run it, and I'm responsible for what happens here."
Zuckerberg added that the company is taking a number of steps to prevent a repeat of past problems, including a "full audit" of Cambridge Analytica's actions, an investigation into "every single app that had access to a large amount of information in the past," and new limits on what information app developers can access.
"The good news here is that back in 2014, we actually had already made a large change to restrict access on the platform that would have prevented this issue with Cambridge Analytica from happening again today," Zuckerberg said yesterday. "Clearly we did not do that soon enough. If we'd done it a couple of years earlier, then we probably wouldn't be sitting here today."
Image credit: iStock/Artist's concept.
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