Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg finally testified in front of a Senate joint committee in an event that was followed closely by both tech and political circles. The interaction which lasted a massive five hours saw forty-four US senators from various states question the Facebook boss about the company’s failure to guard user privacy following the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Zuckerberg appeared calm as the line of questioning from most senators was mostly polite and deferential as they sought to understand how Facebook had inadvertently allowed the profiles of up to 87 million people to be collected by the political data-mining firm Cambridge Analytica.
Here are the most notable stories emerging from the Senate hearing:
Is Facebook a monopoly?
When Senator Lindsey Graham asked Zuckerberg to name his biggest competitor, Zuckerberg couldn’t clearly name one. Zuckerberg responded by outlining three “categories” of companies, starting with one category that included big tech companies like “Google, Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft.” A frustrated Graham cut him off. “If I’m upset with Facebook, what’s the equivalent product I can go sign up for?” he said. “I’m talking about real competition you face … I’m not talking about categories.”
The Facebook CEO danced around the question again, citing a statistic that “the average American uses eight different apps to communicate with their friends and stay in touch.” Graham got straight to the point and asked, “You don’t think you have a monopoly?” The Facebook boss then sheepishly replied “It certainly doesn’t feel like that to me,” to some laughter in the room. While lawmakers seem to understand that Facebook lacks any meaningful competition, but they seem to lack any coherent strategy to resolve this issue. Should Facebook be broken up? Should it be more closely regulated? Should it be forced to become more interoperable with other platforms? That is something which lawmakers are still unsure about.
Zuckerberg won’t rule out a paid version of Facebook
Like most major platforms on the internet, Facebook has offered its services for free, instead, the company has made money (lots of it) by offering targeted ads on its platform. But with the issue of privacy where users are no longer comfortable being profiled for advertisers has led to questions whether Facebook would ever consider offering users a premium service, a paid ad-free version of Facebook. While we would hold our breath for this, Zuckerberg may not be opposed to the idea. Multiple senators asked Zuckerberg whether he might consider a paid, ad-free version of Facebook in the future. While responding to this question from Senator Orrin Hatch, Zuckerberg seemed to choose his words carefully, saying that there would always be a version of Facebook that will be free, suggesting a paid option might not be out of the question. Later, he told another senator that a paid version would be worth thinking about.
Senator Hatch, who recalled meeting Zuckerberg in 2010 as part of the Senate Republican High Tech Task Force. “You said back then that Facebook would always be free,” Hatch said to Zuckerberg. “Is that still your objective?” “Senator, yes,” Zuckerberg responded. “There will always be a version of Facebook that is free. It is our mission to try to help connect everyone around the world and bring the world closer together,” Zuckerberg continued. “In order to do that, we believe we need to deliver a service that everyone can afford.” By specifying a free version of Facebook, Zuckerberg seemed to leave room for the idea of a paid way to opt out of data collection and targeted advertising, as many have suggested.
Zuckerberg seems divided between AI and human moderation
‘AI’, the acronym got thrown around so many times at the hearing that users on Twitter decided to make a drinking game out of it (I pity their livers because spoiler alert, it was mentioned a lot). Whenever asked about how Facebook would improve its moderation tools, Zuckerberg invoked the promise of AI to help Facebook quickly sort through hate speech and other problematic posts. Fair enough. While AI still remains unproven when it comes to content moderation, Facebook has as good a chance as anyone to actually make it work.
So AI seems to be Facebook’s ace in the hole in dealing with hateful content and fake news right? Well, Zuckerberg had a scatterbrain approach to this where he would periodically drop a line or two about how Facebook will have 20,000 people working on securing the platform from such content. He also mentioned getting on board local language moderators when pressed about how Facebook plans to deal with its platform being used to propagate violence in Myanmar.
It seems Zuckerberg want AI to be the magic solution to all of Facebook’s problems but still doesn’t completely trust its efficacy yet to completely forgo human moderators.
Zuckerberg carried a cheat sheet to help him answer questions
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg brought notes with him to the hearing. While he stepped out for a short break after the second round of questions Associated Press photojournalist Andy Harnik snapped a photo of these notes. Highlights from the notes include responses to possible questions on GDPR, Chinese threat, Ad market, Apple and also had an emergency go-to statement.
While Zuckerberg did talk about the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation rules, which go into effect next month, the notes instructed Zuckerberg not to suggest the company is covered. “Don’t say we already do what GDPR requires.” On the question, if Facebook should be broken up his notes suggested using China as a red herring saying that, “US tech companies key asset for America; break up strengthens Chinese companies.”
On possible questions about Facebook’s dominance of the online ad space, the notes suggested that Zuckerberg point out that, “Advertisers have choices too — Advertising is a $650 billion market, we have 6%.” The notes additionally contained references to Apple and its CEO, Tim Cook — presumably to be used in case senators ask about Cook’s recent comments that presumably concerned Facebook. “Lots of stories about apps misusing Apple data, never seen Apple notify people,” Zuckerberg’s notes say.
There was also a go-to statement that Zuckerberg could use in the event of especially strong criticism of Facebook. “If attacked: Respectfully, I reject that. Not who we are,” the notes say. Just precious.
Kogan sold data to others like Cambridge Analytica
Zuckerberg answered a question from Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin, about whether British psychologist Aleksandr Kogan sold the Facebook data he collected when he asked users to fill out a personality quiz to anyone other than Cambridge Analytica. Zuckerberg said he had. Baldwin asked for the names of the companies it was sold to. Zuckerberg mentioned the company Eunoia Technologies and said there were likely other companies that got the data.
This was a fresh revelation as it had been reported so far that Kogan had only worked with Cambridge Analytica. What is still unclear though is what did these other entities do with the data collected from Kogan. Are there other elections that were tampered and we don’t know about it yet?
Zuckerberg does not know Facebook’s exact data retention policy
Zuckerberg claimed that he was unaware of the exact time frame that Facebook retains a user’s data after he/she has deleted his or her account from Facebook. It sounds preposterous that the CEO of the company is unaware of the time frame that Facebook retains a user’s data after they have said goodbye to Facebook for good. If the CEO is so uninformed how does he expect the users to have a clear understanding of how their data is handled.
Lawmakers don’t really understand how Facebook works
The general consensus around the Senate hearing was that while Zuckerberg was pressed on certain issues he largely emerged from the whole experience relatively scot-free. The problem was a lot of time was spent by lawmakers trying to understand the how Facebook and in some cases the internet works. We nearly got a “the internet is a series of tubes” discussion when Zuckerberg was pressed on Internet Service Providers. A lot of questions asked could have been answered with a basic Google search or Wikipedia lookup. The allowed Zuckerberg to field softball question and quash conspiracy theories about Facebook listening in on your conversations through your phone’s mic.
The height of this was while speaking about possible regulations Zuckerberg told a senator that Facebook would be happy to write down what regulations it thinks that are appropriate. Facebook basically proposed to help draft a law that is meant to regulate its functioning. Let that sink in.