What Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony told us about the past, present, and future of Facebook and its data
Day two of the Facebook CEO’s grilling in Washington, DC, was more aggressive than the first. It gave us a glimpse into what Facebook has done in the past, where it currently stands, and where it is heading next. Here are some of the key points to emerge from his testimony.
Zuck’s data got owned: The CEO admitted to Anna Eshoo, a California Democrat, that yes, information about him was sold to Cambridge Analytica.
Denial of bias: Several lawmakers asked about past censorship of content, particularly against conservatives. “There is absolutely no directive … to have a bias in anything that we do. To the contrary, our goal is to be a platform for all ideas,” Zuck said.
Losing control: Doris Matsui, a Democrat from California, argued that “we might own our own data, but once it’s used in advertising we lose control of it.” Zuck disagreed, pointing out that Facebook has not sold and does not sell data, but Matsui was trying to make the point that perhaps users should have ownership of inferences made from data, too.
Tracking non-users: Democratic representative Kathy Castor of Florida pushed Zuck hard on the various ways that Facebook collects data on both users and non-users. (For a primer on that, see this Gizmodo article.) Later, Ben Lujan, a Democrat from New Mexico, pointed out that “people who don’t even have an account have to sign up for an account” to find out what data is held about them. Michigan Democrat Debbie Dingell also requested that data be provided about Facebook like buttons, share buttons, and code on sites other than Facebook that could potentially be used to collect data on non-users.
Fighting terrorism: Zuck repeatedly said 99 percent of terrorist posts are taken down before they are flagged by any users. He indicated that Facebook has a team of 200 people working on counterterrorism measures (an increase of 50 people from last year), with a capacity in 30 languages, in addition to AI tools.
Sales pitch: North Dakota Republican representative Kevin Cramer made a not-so-subtle push for Facebook to set up shop in his home state and hire content reviewers in Bismarck, North Dakota, where “people might be more diverse than Facebook.” Zuck then emphasized, “The content reviewers we have aren’t actually in Silicon Valley for the most part.”
Stepping down: While the hearing was happening, Cambridge Analytica announced that acting CEO Alexander Tayler would be returning to his previous position of chief data officer. He took over after the previous CEO, Alexander Nix, was suspended last month.
The business model won’t change. Probably: “Are you willing to change your business model to help protect people’s privacy?” asked Ashoo. “I’m not sure what that means,” Zuck replied. Yesterday, though, he said that “a free version” of Facebook would always exist, adding fuel to long-simmering speculation that the company might one day offer a subscription-based service.
Tight privacy by default? Unlikely. Congressman Frank Pallone asked Mark Zuckerberg a yes-or-no question: “Will you change all user default settings to minimize to the greatest extent possible all the user data?” He wouldn’t answer.
Now what? Pallone kicked off proceedings by noting that many congressional hearings like this one lead to little in the way of action. But, he added, the Cambridge Analytica incident “demonstrates yet again that our laws are not working" and that “we need comprehensive privacy and data protection legislation.” Lawmakers are poised to regulate Facebook, and the hearings yesterday and today suggest they really mean it. The big question now is, what will they look like?
- House Energy and Commerce Committee