What We Learned From Mark Zuckerberg This Week

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Round-Up for the Week of April 9-13, 2018

Robbie McBeath

After some 10 hours of testimony and questions from almost 100 politicians, we finally learned some things from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg this week. Just some things. But are we any closer to a regulatory solution? Probably not so much. Still, this week marked an important moment in the on-going debate about privacy in the Digital Age. 

What Zuckerberg Said

Privacy and Facebook’s Advertising Business Model

Mark Zuckerberg

How much of your data is shared with advertisers?

The hearings were ostensibly about social media privacy and the use and abuse of data. But few lawmakers seem to truly understand how data is used and shared between platforms, advertisers, data brokers, and app developers. Several Members suggested that Facebook provides users' personal data directly to advertisers. Off-point algorithm questions resulted in blank stares and stammers from a baffled Zuckerberg. Mark Sullivan in Fast Company wrote:

 More than a few of the [Members] ... didn’t seem to understand that Facebook doesn’t wholesale its user data, but rather uses it to help advertisers target ads on Facebook and on partner sites. These points were easy for Zuckerberg to counter, and in doing so, he ate up time that could have been used on more penetrating questions about Facebook’s data practices.

Rep. Joseph Kennedy III (D-MA) questioned Zuckerberg directly on the issue of consumers’ ownership of data. In his responses, Zuckerberg used an example of a business trying to advertise to Facebook users who like to ski. Zuckerberg said, “[B]roadly, we don't tell the advertiser that — ‘Here's a list of people who like skis.’ They just say, ‘Okay, we're trying to sell skis. Can you reach people who like skis?’ And then we match that up on our side, without sharing any of that information with the advertisers.” In the same exchange, Zuckerberg said, “I also would push back on the idea that we're giving [advertisers] access to the data. We allow them to reach people who have said that on Facebook, but we're not giving them access to data.”

Later, Zuckerberg said to Rep. Kennedy:

[M]y understanding is that the targeting options that are... available for advertisers are generally things that are based on what people share. Now, once an advertiser chooses how they want to target something, Facebook also does its own work to help rank and determine which ads are going to be interesting to which people. So we may use metadata or other behaviors of what you've shown that you're interested in on news feed or other places in order to make our systems more relevant to you. But that's a little bit different from giving that as an option to an advertiser, if that makes sense.

Alexis Madrigal of The Atlantic noted that Rep. Kennedy's questions to Zuckerberg marked the most important exchange of the hearing because it "got to the crux of why it was so hard to pin down Zuckerberg on the extent of Facebook's data-gathering operation":

Throughout the hearings, Zuckerberg fell back on a standard defense about the platform: Facebook users own their data, and therefore have “complete control” over the information that Facebook holds about them...But Zuckerberg’s standard response is slipperier than it seems... [T]he raw data that Facebook uses to create user-interest inferences is not available to users. It’s data about them, but it’s not their data. One European Facebook user has been petitioning to see this data—and Facebook acknowledged that it exists—but so far, has been unable to obtain it....When he responded to Kennedy, Zuckerberg did not acknowledge any of this, but he did admit that Facebook has other types of data that it uses to increase the efficiency of its ads...

This apparent contradiction relies on the company’s distinction between the content someone has intentionally shared—which Facebook mines for valuable targeting information—and the data that Facebook quietly collects around the web, gathers from physical locations, and infers about users based on people who have a similar digital profile...With Facebook, the concept of owning your data begins to verge on meaningless if it doesn’t include that second, more holistic concept: not just the data users create and upload explicitly, but all the other information that has become attached to their profiles by other means.

Paris Martineau noted that Zuckerberg's testimony contradicted what Facebook's privacy operations team has told European data authorities.

Rep. Kennedy tried to move away from the “individual privacy aspects of this” to the societal implication, but was not able to due to time constraints.

Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA), who represents part of Silicon Valley, asked Zuckerberg several tough questions concerning the Cambridge Analytica incident, and she repeatedly interrupted his answers due to the time constraints. A notable exchange occurred over opt-in statements by Facebook users in sharing privacy data with third-party users:

ESHOO: Will Facebook offer to all of its users a blanket opt-in to share their privacy data with any third-party users?

ZUCKERBERG: Congresswoman, yes. That's how our platform works. You have to opt in to sign in to any app before you use it.

ESHOO: Well, let — let me just add that it is a minefield in order to do that. And you have to make it transparent, clear, in pedestrian language, just once, “This is what we will do with your data. Do you want this to happen, or not?” So I — I think that this is being blurred. I — I think you know what I mean by it. Are you aware of other third-party information mishandlings that have not been disclosed?

ZUCKERBERG: Congresswoman, no, although we are currently going through the process of investigating every...


ESHOO: So you're not sure?

ZUCKERBERG: ... that had access to a large amount of data.

ESHOO: What does that mean?

ZUCKERBERG: It means that we're going to look into every app that had a large amount of access to data in the past, before we lock down the platform. I ...

ESHOO: So you're not aware.

ZUCKERBERG: ... because there are tens of thousands of apps, we will find some ...

At another point Rep. Eshoo asked whether Zuckerberg was “willing to change your business model in the interest of protecting individual privacy.”

“Congresswoman, I'm not sure what that means,” Zuckerberg said. Unable to finish his answer given the time pressures, he eventually promised to follow up in writing.

Offline Tracking

Another line of questioning addressed how  Facebook tracks users when they are not on the site.  Zuckerberg had a prepared response, such as the one he gave to Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL): 

We track certain information for security reasons and for ads reasons….[E]ven if someone isn't logged in, we track certain information, like how many pages they're accessing, as a security measure... we provide an ad network that third-party websites and apps can run in order to help them make money. And those ads — you know, similar to what Google does and what the rest of the industry does — it's not limited to people who are just on Facebook. So, for the purposes of that, we may also collect information to make it so that those ads are more relevant and work better on those websites. There's a control that — for that second class of information around ad targeting — anyone can turn off, has complete control over it. For obvious reasons, we do not allow people to turn off the — the measurement that we do around security.

Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL) compared the types of tracking Facebook does to FBI government surveillance. He said:

In the 1960s, our government, acting through the FBI and local police, maliciously tricked individuals and organizations into participating in something called COINTELPRO, which was a counterintelligence program where they tracked and shared information amongst civil rights activists, their political, social, city, even religious affiliations. And I personally was a victim of COINTELPRO. Your organization, your methodology, in my opinion, is similar. You're truncating the basic rights of the American promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness by the wholesale invasion and manipulation of their right to privacy. Mr. Zuckerberg, what is the difference between Facebook's methodology and the methodology of the American political pariah, J. Edgar Hoover? 

Zuckerberg replied:

Congressman, this is an important question because I think people often ask what the difference is between surveillance and what we do. And I think that the difference is extremely clear, which is that, on Facebook, you have control over your information. The content that you share, you put there. You can take it down at any time. The information that we collect, you can choose to have us not collect. You can delete any of it, and, of course, you can leave Facebook if you want. I know of no surveillance organization that gives people the option to delete the data that they have, or even know what — what they're collecting.

Conservative Censorship

“Congress is good at two things: doing nothing and overreacting. We’re about to overreact.” -- Rep. Bill Long (R-MO)

Republican lawmakers zeroed in on Facebook's power to censor conservative voices, repeatedly bringing up the platform's takedown of pro-Trump video duo “Diamond and Silk” and asking if Facebook has controls against internal bias. Zuckerberg said the company has made mistakes in reviewing content, but doesn't think it censors political speech. 

Rep. Richard Hudson (R-NC), who represents the district in which Diamond and Silk reside, asked Zuckerberg what standard the company uses to decide between hate speech and speech it might disagree with. Zuckerberg confessed that the company constantly struggles to determine when someone crosses the line and he said Facebook gets criticism from both conservatives and liberals for its decisions on the subject.

During a break in the hearing, Rep. Billy Long (R-MO) expanded on his remarks about Facebook’s treatment of Diamond and Silk: “It seems like they take down a lot more conservative content than they do liberal.” 

Rep. Long said that he needed more answers about the particular situation and that he hoped Zuckerberg could ensure him that the company’s thousands of moderators were not biased against conservatives. “He better hope he does it, not us,” Rep. Long added. “Or Congress is going to get involved, and regulate a private industry.”

Both Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) asked Zuckerberg about Facebook being in a “pervasive pattern of bias and political censorship.” Sen. Cruz noted that Facebook had initially shut down the Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day page, and Rep. Scalise cited a report that found that a new algorithm Facebook uses to determine what appears in users' news feeds had a "tremendous bias against conservative news and content, and a favorable bias toward liberal content." 

"There is absolutely no directive in any of the changes that we make to have a bias in anything that we do," Zuckerberg responded to Rep. Scalise. "To the contrary, our goal is to be a platform for all ideas." 

“I am very committed to making sure that Facebook is a platform for all ideas," Zuckerberg told Sen. Cruz.

Elections and Russian Meddling

Rep. John Sarbanes (D-MD) asked about Facebook’s “embed program” in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election.  "Can you say with absolute certainty that Facebook or any of the Facebook employees working as campaign embeds did not grant any special [advertising] approval rights to the Trump campaign?" Rep. Sarbanes asked.

Zuckerberg said Facebook offered the same services to both campaigns. But Rep. Sarbanes expressed concern that Facebook was acquiring too much political influence:

I'm worried that that embed program has the potential to become a tool for Facebook to solicit favor from policymakers and that creates the potential for real conflict of interest. A lot of Americans are waking up to the fact that Facebook is becoming sort of a self-regulated superstructure for political discourse. And the question is, are we, the people, going to regulate our political dialogue? Or are you, Mark Zuckerberg, going to end up regulating the political discourse?

Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) pressed Zuckerberg on Russia’s exploitation of the platform during the 2016 presidential election.

Zuckerberg admitted that the company’s effort to find and stop the Russian meddling was “slow,” and called that failure “one of my greatest regrets.” He said Facebook was tracking known Russian hacking groups in real time, but took much longer to recognize the inflammatory posts of the Internet Research Agency, a private company with Kremlin ties.

“There are people in Russia whose job is to exploit our systems,” Zuckerberg said. “This is an arms race.”

But the company deployed new artificial intelligence tools to detect malicious activity in elections in France, Italy, and a special Senate race in Alabama. He said he believed the new technology would help protect the integrity of elections around the world from manipulation via misinformation.

Zuckerberg frequently evoked artificial intelligence and repeatedly said Facebook is developing AI-driven systems to identify fake news and inappropriate content, in addition to increasing its human review team. But no lawmakers pressed him on why it's not a silver-bullet solution for rooting out nefarious content or preventing other types of bias in the review process.

Will Knight, writing for MIT Technology Review, displayed skepticism about AI being a viable solution. "Mark Zuckerberg thinks AI will largely automate the process of censorship, but that assumes profound progress will be made," he wrote. "Understanding video is something AI researchers are just starting to tackle. The fake videos made this way could also prove especially difficult for an AI to catch."

Defining Facebook

For many lawmakers, defining what Facebook is and how to place it in the regulatory ecosystem was a challenge. “What exactly is Facebook?” asked House Commerce Chairman Greg Walden (R-OR), listing industries like advertising, publishing, and even telecommunications, and asking whether the company was a “common carrier in the information age.”

“I consider us to be a technology company,” Zuckerberg replied. Facebook should be responsible for what it publishes, he said, but it was not a news media company. “The primary thing we do is have engineers that write code and build services for other people.”

How lawmakers define or categorize Facebook plays a huge role in how and which federal agencies will craft regulations. 

Facebook and Rural Broadband

Facebook has rolled out several initiatives to bring low-cost and free broadband to hard-to-reach areas of the world, such as India and Africa. Some lawmakers said they would like to talk to Zuckerberg about focusing those efforts closer to home.

"Next time you visit [West Virgnia], if you would please bring some fiber, because we don't have connectivity in our rural areas like we really need, and Facebook could really help us with that," said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV). 

Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-VA) said he'd also like to talk to Zuckerberg about bringing high-speed connectivity to parts of his state.  "My district is very similar to West Virginia as it borders it," he said. "We have a lot of rural areas. Can you also agree, yes or no, to update me on that when the information is available?"

Zuckerberg said he would. And he explained some of the initiatives the company has been working on. "Unfortunately, too much of the internet infrastructure today is too expensive for the current business models of carriers to support a lot of rural communities with the quality of service that they deserve," Zuckerberg said. "So we are building a number of specific technologies from planes that can beam down internet access to repeaters and mesh networks to make it so all of these communities can be served."

Future Congressional Action?

“Here’s what’s going to happen — there are going to be a whole bunch of bills introduced to regulate Facebook. It’s up to you 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.” Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) to Zuckerberg

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune (R-SD)  said, “In the past, many of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle have been willing to defer to tech companies’ efforts to regulate themselves. But this may be changing.” Chairman Thune also said that Cambridge Analytica would be brought to Congress in subsequent hearings.

Chairman Walden said after the House hearing, "I don’t want to rush into legislation minutes after having the first hearing of this magnitude, but certainly if they can’t clean up their act we’ll clean it up for them.”

But here’s just a few of the reasons why we do not expect to see Congress take action against Facebook and other digital companies this year:

  1. A Balancing Act on Both Sides to Protect the Status Quo: Lawmakers looking to be ideologically-consistent must decide where they fall in relation to key questions over rights to privacy. Cecilia Kang and Kevin Roose wrote in the New York Times, "“For lawmakers, the calculus is tricky: They do not want to infringe on First Amendment rights or hurt Silicon Valley innovation but are also unsure how to regulate this new breed of company, which wields enormous power by collecting vast amounts of private data from billions of consumers.” Meanwhile, Zuckerberg had his own balancing act to uphold. “For Zuckerberg, the two days represented a delicate balancing act, in which he sought to deflect politicians tapping into public ire over recent scandals, without doing anything to alter the fundamental business model that has made the company one of the most valuable in the world and the 33-year-old CEO one of the richest people in the world,” noted John McKinnon and Deepa Seetharaman in the Wall Street Journal
  2. Not the Right Political Climate: “[M]any longtime advocates for reining in the industry remain unconvinced that federal action is imminent after more than a decade in which privacy controversies have failed to generate meaningful new laws. Few expect a reversal this year with a looming election, a Congress driven by partisan discord and a White House weakened by federal investigation,” wrote Craig Timberg, Tony Romm, and Elizabeth Dwoskin in the Washington Post. “Even with this strong bipartisan consensus that there’s a large problem that needs legislative action, it would be extremely difficult to pass a law in this environment,” said Gene Kimmelman, president of Public Knowledge. He predicted changes probably would take years.
  3. Too Many Questions, Not Enough Answers: "This is a unique hearing," said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) as he kicked off the afternoon of testimony. Grassley noted it was unusual to have a lone CEO of one of America's largest companies facing nearly half the Senate in a joint committee hearing. Senators were given 5 minutes each to question Zuckerberg; House Members received 4. Members took the opportunity to express anger and/or frustration, but did not get into finer policy details. “Legislators, over the two days of crowded hearings, voiced their anger at Facebook’s approach to privacy, but offered few specifics of what type of oversight would be appropriate, as some struggled with the complexities of data-privacy policy,” wrote McKinnon and Seetharaman. These short formats allowed Zuckerberg was able to deflect any difficult questions, and the CEO repeatedly said he would be following up in writing. In fact, Wired put together a comprehensive list of all 43 things Zuckerberg will follow up on for Congress. 
  4. Disagreements Over the Main Problem: “Policymakers seem all over the place on what the biggest problem with Facebook is — that is, if they understand what it does at all,” wrote Emily Stewart in Vox. Is Facebook a monopoly? Are conservative voices being silenced? Does Facebook sell your data? Are its actions affecting democracy? Questions from lawmakers were all over the map, indicating a cohesive policy response is not around the corner. 


After 10 hours of Congressional hearings, we now know a little bit more about Zuckerberg, Facebook, and how it handles user data. But the task now before policymakers is to make policy -- as our democratic discourse may depend on it. 

“The clock is ticking, and we will see pressure building for Congress to eventually act,” said Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy. Zuckerberg’s “testimony has helped the privacy issue cross a critical threshold of public understanding. Anger is building. This was the beginning — not the end — of their Internet privacy fight.”

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By Robbie McBeath.