Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg spent a marathon ten hours testifying before both branches of the legislature last week, answering questions about the Cambridge Analytica data breach, Facebook’s business model, and election interference. Legislators tried valiantly to search for bright-line rules and clear yes-or-no answers about Facebook’s “fundamental relationship with its users” as House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Greg Walden (R-OR) stated at the beginning of the questioning. Below are four key points to take away from Zuckerberg’s testimony.
- The buck stops with Zuck: In his testimony before both Committees, Zuckerberg began with a statement of personal accountability for his company’s recent failings, saying “[W]e didn’t do enough to prevent these tools from being used for harm as well. That goes for fake news, 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. It was my mistake, and I’m sorry. I started Facebook, I run it, and I’m responsible for what happens here.” While this opening statement may be viewed as refreshing, this isn’t the first time that Zuckerberg has made a formal apology. His assumption of blame may indicate, however, that this won’t be the last visit Zuckerberg makes to Capitol Hill.
- There’s fundamental confusion about what Facebook actually is (and maybe how to use it): In between questions about potential regulation, election interference, and the extent of the data leak, several legislators pursued a line of questioning that revealed a fundamental disconnect between tech innovators and lawmakers. Questions like Sen. Lindsey Graham’s (R-SC), “Is Twitter the same as what you do?”, Sen. Brian Schatz’s (D-HI), “If I’m emailing within WhatsApp, does that ever inform your advertisers?”, and Sen. Dean Heller’s (R-NV), “Have you ever drawn the line on selling data to an advertiser?” (Facebook doesn’t sell data, allegedly) drew mockery from the Internet peanut gallery. However, these questions and more like them illustrate just how obscure Facebook’s practices are, and how hard it may be to regulate, especially if there’s a Congressional knowledge gap.
- Facebook isn’t going to change their business model: Targeted advertising accounts for almost all of Facebook’s business model, and earned the company $19.6 billion in the second quarter of last year. Several lawmakers asked Zuckerberg directly if he would consider switching to a different business model (perhaps subscription-based) in order to protect user privacy. Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) asked “Are you willing to change your business model in the interest of protecting individual privacy?” Zuckerberg responded that he didn’t understand the question. When Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) asked “Will you make the commitment to changing all the user default settings to minimize, to the greatest extent possible, the collection and use of users’ data?” Zuckerberg answered that the question was complicated and deserved more than a one-word answer. Zuckerberg’s equivocation indicates that Facebook isn’t interested pursuing an alternative business model, especially when Zuckerberg was adamant that users can take control of their data usage and collection. And why would they, since Facebook would have to charge at least eighty-five dollars a person?
- Legislators expressed their ire and concern, but not tangible regulation:
Before his congressional appearance, Zuckerberg conceded that he “wasn’t sure if [Facebook] shouldn’t be regulated.” Facebook seems to be open to some regulation, including ad transparency legislation, but cautioned that “you have to be careful about regulation you put in place.” Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) indicated that Congress could have an uphill battle if Zuckerberg refused to collaborate on legislation, but in order to do that, all parties would have to agree on what Facebook’s key issues are. There doesn’t appear to be a consensus on that issue. Despite this ambiguity, lawmakers offered plenty of salient, cutting remarks to Zuckerberg during his testimony. Sen. Graham called Facebook a “virtual monopoly”. Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-NH) questioned Facebook’s intentions, saying that there is “little incentive…to actually be aggressive in protecting customer privacy…we’ve heard apologies but there is no financial incentive.” Sen. John Kennedy spoke more plainly, stating that “Your user agreement sucks.” Zuckerberg responded to these comments amiably, at one point stating “knowing what we know now, there’s a lot of things we should have done differently.”