House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden, R-Oregon, opened the hearing calling Facebook an American success story — a company that embodies the nation’s principles of freedom of speech and association. But reports that data about millions of users had been harvested without their consent raises troubling questions about privacy and trust.
“While Facebook has certainly grown, I worry it has not matured,” Walden said. “I think it is time to ask whether Facebook may have moved too fast and broken too many things.”
Rep. Frank Pallone, a New Jersey Democrat, said the Cambridge Analtica revelations — in which a political consultancy bought data about millions of Facebook users from an app developer and used it to sway voters in the 2016 election — is the latest example in the predictable string of companies that “vacuum up data.”
Pallone blamed his Republican colleagues for their repeal, last year, of the Federal Communications Commission’s privacy protections for Internet users. The Obama-era rules would have banned Internet providers from collecting, storing, sharing and selling certain types of customer information without their consent.
“This latest disaster shows just how wrong Republicans are,” said Pallone. “The FTC used every tool Republicans were able to give it, and it wasn’t enough.”
The Federal Trade Commission is the current watchdog, monitoring how giant tech companies like Facebook and Google may use consumer information. It has the power to bring lawsuits, but cannot create new rules to regulate for the industry.
Zuckerberg delivered opening remarks in which he once-again focused on the company’s responsibility to protect people’s information. The second marathon day of testimony just concluded.
UPDATED at 11:44 a.m.
Contemplating Stricter Penalties For Privacy Breaches
One California lawmaker observed the inherent tension between Facebook’s repeated avowals that it values an individual’s privacy and its ad-supported business model which prizes the ability to accurately target interested users on the social network.
“I observe that the performance on privacy has been inconsistent,” said Rep. Scott Peters, a Democrat representing San Diego. “I wonder if that’s because it’s not a bottom-line issue.”
Peters proposed instituting financial penalties that would signal to investors and employees that failing to respect privacy commitments can have business consequences.
“I think that’s not the case,” Zuckerberg said.
Zuckerberg said there’s a common misperception that what Facebook users want stands in conflict with the company’s business interests. Often, the tension lies with users, who like the ability to easily share their information with an app to get an experience even as they say they prize privacy.
Facebook Again Accused of Liberal Bias
The hearings provided Republicans a forum to voice their favorite grievance about Facebook: its perceived liberal bias. The topic became a third-rail issue during the 2016 election cycle, after the tech site Gizmodo quoted a former curator who said Facebook’s workers routinely suppressed news stories of interest to conservatives in its “trending” news section.
That prompted Zuckerberg to host about 20 prominent conservatives at the company’s Menlo Park headquarters to address these concerns.
Questions resurfaced again as Facebook tweaked its New Feed to provoke more meaningful conversations between friends and family, in the process, suppress stories from publishers. Part of these changes including a reliance on trusted news sources — a decision that was designed to discourage the circulation of bogus news stories.
Rep. Richard Hudson, a Republican from North Carolina, said he’s concerned about what he called Facebook’s censorship of content — particular those promoting Christian beliefs or conservative ideas.
“I have to bring it up because Diamond and Silk, they’re from our district,” said Hudson, referring to two sisters who are prominent Trump supporters whose videos were recently deemed “unsafe to the community.” “This is a very serious concern.”
Zuckerberg acknowledged that Facebook is constantly struggling with what constitutes political speech and what cross the line into hate speech.
“That’s one where we get criticized on both the left and the right,” Zuckerberg said.
UPDATED at 10:45 a.m.
Cambridge Analytica’s Acting CEO Steps Down
As Zuckerberg moved toward his fourth hour of testimony, the acting chief executive of Cambridge Analytica announced he would resign in the wake of the data-breach scandal that has drawn the attention of legislators and regulators in the U.S and the U.K.
Alexander Taylor, who assumed the CEO position after his predecessor’s suspension last month, announced he would return to his former job as chief data officer.
Zuckerberg said the executive shake-up doesn’t resolve the controversy.
Is Facebook Eavesdropping On Our Phone Calls?
Amid all the testimony about Facebook’s data gathering practices, Rep. Larry Bucshon, a Republican from Maryland, asked about a suspected privacy intrusion other legislators had yet to broach: Facebook monitoring our phone conversations to serve advertising.
Bucshon offered anecdotal accounts of uncomfortable associations of the social network seemingly being aware of private conversations, including one in which his mother was talking about her deceased brother, then logged on to Facebook to see a digital memorial posted into her news feed.
“If you’re not listening to us on the phone, who is?” Bucshon asked.
Zuckerberg said Facebook isn’t “collecting information verbally on the phone.” He called the incident a coincidence, or, more likely, a response to something that the family member reacted to or posted on the social network.
UPDATED at 9:30 a.m.
Facebook’s Stalker-like Data Collection Practices Questioned
Rep. Kathy Castor, a Republican from Florida, equated Facebook and its extensive data collection practices to a neighborhood stalker.
“Americans do not like to be manipulated, they don’t like to be spied on, they don’t like it when people are following us around the neighborhood or stalking our children,” Castor said. “Facebook has evolved to a place where you are tracking everyone, you are collecting data on just about everybody.”
Castor asked Zuckerberg to confirm facets of Facebook’s tracking activity that the average American might be unaware of, such as following users even after they’ve signed off the social network or keeping track when a user likes something they’ve discovered on a website.
“You’re in the business of gathering data,” Castor said.
“I disagree with that characterization,” Zuckerberg responded.
Castor pressed Zuckerberg on Facebook’s use of data brokers — a practice the social network CEO said it ended two week ago, while adding that augmenting user information, such as their friends or lifestyle, with outside data about finances or health is an “industry norm” for ad targeting.
Facebook has said it would stop data brokers from helping advertisers target people with ads over the next six months, pledging that it would help improve people’s privacy on the social network. But the Washington Post offered another possible explanation: that privacy experts see the decision as Facebook consolidating its power over the “an increasingly intimate level of detail about its users lives” that advertisers value greatly.
UPDATED at 10 a.m.
Zuckerberg Knocked For Lack Of Diversity
Rep. Yvette Clarke, a Democrat from New York, called out Zuckerberg for Facebook’s lack of diversity in its executive suite. She said this lack of “culturally competent personnel in your C-suite” contributed to 3,000 ads purchased on the platform during the 2016 election cycle that sought to inflame racial tensions.
“These ads specifically characterized and weaponized African American groups like Black Lives Matter, which suggested, through propaganda, that they are a rising threat,” Clarke said.
Zuckerberg said the ads were part of a larger Russian disinformation campaign that Facebook was too slow to identify.
Clarke said the damage from such propaganda continues to reverberate, well after the ballots were counted two years ago.
UPDATED at 8:30 a.m.
Will Tougher European Privacy Protections Extend To U.S. Users?
Rep. Gene Green, a Democrat from Houston, raised the specter of applying European privacy protections in the United States. The General Data Protection Regulation, known by its shorthand GDPR, changes how businesses and public sector organizations handle information about their customers. The new rules, which take effect on May 25, 2018, allow people easier access to the data companies hold about them and impose fines for companies that fail to obtain the consent of people they collect information about.
Green wanted to know if American citizens will have the same protections.
“All the same controls will be available throughout the world,” said Zuckerberg
Zuckerberg was less forthcoming when asked whether Americans will be able to object to their personal information being used for marketing purposes, including micro-targeting. GDPR gives Europeans this right.
“I’m not sure how we’re going to implement that yet,” Zuckerberg said.
Return Of The Truman Show?
Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Republican from Tennessee, looked to Hollywood and Jim Carrey to describe the unwitting intrusion into people’s private lives that took place on Facebook and voice concerns over whether the individual or corporation has control over the “virtual you.”
“Mr. Zuckerberg, your cozy community is beginning to look a whole lot like The Truman Show, where people’s identities are made available to people they do not know, then their data is crunched and used, and they’re not aware of this,” Blackburn said.
Rep. Doris Matsui, a California Democrat, picked up on Blackburn’s line of questioning, saying consumers can’t “claw back” their data once it’s been used in advertising.
Zuckerberg, showing signs of frustration, seeking to address a misunderstanding of how Facebook’s advertising works. The social network doesn’t sell user data. It uses the information the social network’s 2 billion user volunteer to place ads in front of the right audiences.
The example Zuckerberg used is that of a muffin shop owner looking to target potential customers who expressed a love of baking on Facebook.
“We don’t share that information with you,” said Zuckerberg of the shop owner. “We just show the message to the right people.”
“You don’t have eyes that are culturally competent looking at this and seeing how it will impact civil society,” Clarke said. “We’ve talked about diversity forever with your organization. What can you say today that you can do immediately?”
Zuckerberg sought to assure Clarke that safeguards will be in place for the midterm elections to prevent foreign actors from manipulating U.S. elections through political or issue-oriented ads. It’ll verify identity and location before publishing these ads.