Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony before nearly half the Senate Tuesday may mark a historic turning point for Silicon Valley.
Members of both parties expressed substantive concerns about how high-tech’s surveillance economy preys on privacy and elevates propaganda—followed by wide skepticism that Facebook and the tech sector can be trusted to fix these problems without new federal regulations.
“If you and other social media companies don’t get your act in order, none of us are going to have any privacy anymore,” said Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, D-FL, shortly after the hearing began. “Online companies like Facebook are tracking our activities and collecting information… Facebook has a responsibility to protect this personal information.”
“Our promised digital utopia, we have discovered, has minefields,” said Sen. John Kennedy, R-LA, more than four hours later. “Here’s what gonna happen. There are going to be a whole bunch of bills introduced to regulate Facebook. It’s up to you [Facebook] 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. And there are two: one’s a privacy problem and the other’s what I call a propaganda problem…”
Zuckerberg repeatedly stated that Facebook has taken new steps to protect user privacy, impose transparency and disclosure standards for political advertisers, and would not oppose federal regulations, but would want to work with Congress to refine any new law. Despite his poise and focus answering questions, outspoken liberals and conservatives repeatedly told Zuckerberg he was dodging the toughest issues and noted that he didn’t follow his previous promises.
“There’s clearly tension between your bottom line and what’s best for your users,” said Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-NH, who was citing Facebook’s latest annual report. “You’ve said in your testimony that Facebook’s mission is to bring the world closer together, and you have said that you will never prioritize advertisers over that mission. I believe that you believe that. But at the end of the day, your business model does prioritize advertisers over the mission. Facebook is a for-profit company, and as the CEO you have a legal duty to do what’s best for you shareholders. So, given all of that, why should be think that Facebook on its own will ever be truly able to make the changes that we need it to make to protect Americans’ wellbeing and privacy?”
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“Well, Senator, you raise a number of important points in there, so let me respond in a couple of different ways,” Zuckerberg began. “The first is that I think it’s really important to think about what we are doing is building this community over the long term. Any business has the opportunity to do things that might increase revenue in the short term, but at the expense of trust and building engagement over time. What we actually find is that not actually increasing time spent, especially in the short term, is going to be best for our business engagement over time… It actually aligns very closely with the well-being research that we have done. That when people are interacting with other people, and posting, and basically building relationships, that is both correlated with higher measures of well-being, health, happiness, not feeling lonely; and that ends up being better for the business than doing lower value things like passively consuming content.”
The exchange between Hassan and Zuckerberg was indicative of the Senate hearing. It was part mortar-boarding, where Zuckerberg tried to school the senators on how his platform works, collects its user data, sells ads based on proprietary profiles, and has launched a series of new steps to prevent personal data being stolen, and its pages from being hijacked by extremists seeking to disrupt voting and elections in the U.S. and abroad. But the hearing was also part political water-boarding, where despite Zuckerberg’s answers, the senators grilled him with a variety of bottom lines.
“I understand the point you’re trying to make,” Hassan replied. “But here’s what I’m concerned about. We’ve heard this point from you over the last decade plus, since you founded Facebook. I understand that you founded it pretty much as a solo entrepreneur with your roommate. But now you’re sitting here, the head of a bazillion-dollar company, and we’ve heard you apologize numerous times and promise us to change. But here we are.”
Like other senators, Hassan said Facebook’s actions spoke louder than its words. Those actions included the Cambridge Analytica scandal, where that British-based political consulting firm stole personal profile information on 87 million Facebook users and then sold it to several GOP presidential campaigns. The senators understood Zuckerberg’s explanation that Cambridge Analytica violated its agreements with Facebook when it pilfered the data. However, they repeatedly said Facebook erred in not informing those 87 million people about the data theft—despite its public pronouncements and even a Federal Trade Commission consent decree concerning how it safeguards users’ privacy.
“I firmly believe in free enterprise,” Hassan said, “but when private companies are unable to do what’s necessary, public officials have historically, in every industry, stood up to protect our constituents. You’ve supported targeted regulations, such as the Honest Ads Act, and that’s an important step for election integrity, and I’m proud to be a co-sponsor, but we need to address other broader issues as well. And today you’ve said you’d be open to some regulation, but this has been a pretty general conversation. Will you commit to working with Congress to develop ways of protecting constituent privacy and wellbeing, even if that means that will result in some laws that will require you to adjust your business model?”
“Senator yes, we will commit to that,” Zuckerberg replied. “I think that’s an important conversation to have. Our position is not that regulation is bad. I think the Internet is so important in people’s lives and it’s getting more important; the expectations on internet companies and technology companies are growing. I think the real question is, ‘what is the right framework for this,’ not ‘should there be one?’”
Hassan replied that was helpful, but then asked if tech companies should face steep financial fines “when large providers, like Facebook, are breached, and privacy is compromised as a result. Because right now there is very little incentive for, whether it’s Facebook or Equifax, to actually be aggressive in protecting customer privacy.” That line prompted what was arguably the day’s most personal response from Zuckerberg.
“Well, senator, we look forward to discussing that with you,” he began. “I would disagree, however, that we have no financial incentive or incentive overall to do this. This episode has clearly hurt us. And it has clearly made it harder to achieve the social mission that we care about. And we now have to do a lot of work around building trust back, which is just a really important part of this.”
First Amendment Issues
There’s much more than rebuilding trust on the privacy front before Congress as is considers how to respond to the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal. There’s the issue of who owns their online information—individuals or platforms.
As Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana told Zuckerberg, his oft-repeated statement Tuesday that individuals own their data, “sounds really good to me, but in practice, let’s think about this for a second. You’re making about 40 billion bucks a year on the data. I’m not making any money on it. It feels like you own the data. In fact, I would say that the data that was breached through Cambridge Analytica… My guess was is few if any Americans knew that information was being breached. If I owned that data, I know it’s being breached.”
“So, Senator, when I say it’s your data, what we mean is that you have control over how it’s used on Facebook,” Zuckerberg replied. “You clearly need to give Facebook a license within our system, or else the service doesn’t work.”
“Yeah, I know,” Tester wearily replied. “But the fact is the license is very thick, maybe intentionally, so people get tired of reading it. Look, Mark, I appreciate you being here. I look forward to having you in another hearing. Thank you.”
Perhaps the thorniest issue—because the legal lines have not yet been clarified in law or court—concerns what Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and other Republicans, raised. Cruz attacked Facebook for not following the First Amendment, because it removed pages from right-wingers who he is aligned with, but Facebook judged to be partisan extremists. Other Republicans warned Zuckerberg that Facebook has be very careful with not appearing to take partisan sides.
Beyond the hypocritical nature of Cruz’s attack, first because his 2016 presidential campaign hired Cambridge Analytica to sway voters (using stolen Facebook data), and also because Cruz knows that private corporations do not have to abide by free speech rights because they are not public entities, the argumentative Texan was highlighting a Facebook vulnerability.
That’s because Zuckerberg has said his platform will not display lie-filled propaganda, hate speech, political bullying or anything that it judges to be violence inspiring or a public threat. However, as Sen. John Thune, R-South Dakota, noted, there often was a blurry line between “hate speech and political discourse.” Thune asked how Facebook intended to draw out that distinction—because as a private company its user agreements are not bound under the First Amendment’s political speech rights.
Zuckerberg’s response was revealing for the short- and long-term. In the short term, he said Facebook would hire thousands of people across the world to review posts with an eye to removing outright propaganda, hate speech or violent threats. In the longer-term, he said artificial intelligence (AI) would screen content automatically and remove bad posts—but that was still several years away.
“Some problems lend themselves more easily to AI solutions than others,” he explained. “Hate speech is one of the hardest, because determining if something is hate speech is very linguistically nuanced. You need to understand what is a slur, and whether something is hateful, not just in English. The majority of people on Facebook who use it in languages that are different across the world. Contrast that, for example, with an area like finding terrorist propaganda, which we’ve actually been very successful on deploying AI tools already. Today, as we sit here, 99 percent of the ISIS and Al Queda content that we take down on Facebook, our AI systems flag before any human sees it.”
He continued, “Hate speech, I’m optimistic that over a five-to-ten year period, we’ll have AI tools that will get into some of the nuances, the linguistic nuances, of different kinds of content to be more accurate and flagging things for our systems. But today, we’re just not there on that. So a lot of this is still reactive. People flag to us. We have people look at it. We have politics to make it as not subjective as possible. But until we get it more automated, there’s a higher error rate than I’m happy with.”
That means beyond what Facebook may do to protect online privacy and personal information, as well the steps it is taking to force political advertisers to disclose their identities, that it will make mistakes in posting or censoring political information. That reality will surely lead to attacks by partisans of every stripe, including more calls for federal action—if Congress doesn’t proactively address these issues.
Zuckerberg will testify before House members on Wednesday, where he will surely be asked about all of these topics, drilling down into how Silicon Valley’s attention economy works. Many senators implored Zuckerberg to help them fashion solutions. As Senate Judiciary chairman Chuck Grassley, the Iowa Republican, said at the end of Tuesday’s hearing, Facebook has tremendous political power. He urged it to avoid taking partisan stances and help restore public faith in government.
“There’s a great deal of cynicism in American society about government,” Grassley said. “These attitudes of the public we’ve got to change, and people of your position, and your influence, you can do a lot to change this… I hope that everybody will do whatever they can to help enhance respect for government.”
Top Photo | Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify before a joint hearing of the Commerce and Judiciary Committees on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, April 10, 2018, about the use of Facebook data to target American voters in the 2016 election. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America’s democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).