No one should be surprised that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg passed the test placed before him by the Senate Judiciary and Commerce committees on Tuesday.
It was an easy test, after all. Zuckerberg appeared in a nice suit and tie, scrubbed and polished to a glistening sheen. He addressed every questioner as “senator” or “Mr. Chairman,” kept his cool, and, when challenged on a fact or figure, promised to have “my team get back to you” with the particulars. Rather than a novice making his first appearance on a Washington hot seat, he seemed to have perfected the smooth evasions of a chief executive from the oil or tobacco industry.
But it also was unsurprising that, except for a few notable moments, the general discussion avoided the central issues raised by Facebook’s dominance of social media and public discussion on the internet. This evasion was only partially Zuckerberg’s. He was abetted by the fundamental assumptions shared by questioners and witness — that digital connectivity is on balance a good thing, and worth being offered to members of the public for free.
That was the subtext of Zuckerberg’s frequent references to Facebook’s “mission,” which he defined as “connecting people, building community and bringing the world closer together.”
This is a canny positioning of Facebook as a social service and the subtext of Zuckerberg’s opening remarks labeling Facebook “an idealistic and optimistic company” and claiming that “across the board, we have a responsibility to not just build tools, but to make sure those tools are used for good.”
This is, of course, nonsense. Facebook isn’t an “idealistic” company, but a commercial enterprise purveying private data to advertisers. Most of the information that passes through its servers isn’t for “good” or “bad” in any moral or social sense, but for profit — Facebook’s, or someone else’s.
It’s commonly noted but just as commonly overlooked that Facebook’s customers aren’t its billions of users, in the sense that car buyers are customers of Chevrolet. The users are Facebook’s raw material, offered for sale to its real customers, who are its advertisers. That’s why Facebook’s efforts to protect its users’ privacy have been so feeble. “Your business model is to monetize information,” Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) observed. Placing users’ information behind high walls conflicts with the model.
Zuckerberg treats it as a virtue that users get access to Facebook for free. But it’s not really free, as Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) pointed out in a rare moment of clarity. “Websites that don’t charge for access extract value in other ways,” Hatch said. The relevant issue, he said, was whether users “understand what they’re agreeing to when they access a website … Are websites upfront about how they extract value from users, or do they hide the ball?”
What may have been obscured behind the scrim of Zuckerberg’s apparent eagerness to play nice with the senators is how closely he stuck to a script he has followed for decades: push the envelope of commercial exploitation of user information, express contrition when he’s caught crossing the line and promise to do better in future.
Zuckerberg didn’t depart materially from his long-term claim that users have plenty of control over how their personal information is used on Facebook. “Zuckerberg has always pushed to reconceptualize conversations about privacy into conversations about ‘control,’” observes Nicholas Proferes, a veteran follower of Zuckerberg’s public statements and an expert on social media at the University of Kentucky.
“It’s a way of pushing the issue onto individual users to make a choice about how they want to enact control over their data,” he told me, “rather than taking a broader look at the changes that Facebook is having on society in terms of how we view privacy or how we commoditize data.”
Even though Zuckerberg expressed contrition from the witness table about the Cambridge Analytica affair and pledged his commitment to “getting it right,” Facebook still hasn’t accepted legal responsibility for the misuse of its users’ data by Cambridge Analytica. We know that based on a legal motion the company filed Friday in federal court, where it’s facing at least 14 class-action lawsuits alleging the misuse of personal data.
In that filing, Facebook calls the lawsuits “misguided,” because “Facebook broke no laws and violated no legal duties.” It adds that “although Cambridge Analytica and other related actors used data for purposes that Facebook and its users never authorized, there was no data breach — no unauthorized access to Facebook’s systems and no hacking of user data.”
This falls into the category of slicing the baloney very thin. It’s a signal that despite Zuckerberg’s equable responses to his congressional interrogators, the company is going to fob off onto its clients its own duty to protect its users’ data.
By the way, it’s far from clear that “Facebook broke no laws.” The Federal Trade Commission has opened an investigation into whether the company violated a 2011 consent order requiring that it “address privacy risks associated with the development and management of new and existing products and services, and to protect the privacy and confidentiality of consumers' information.” If the FTC concludes that Facebook allowed Cambridge Analytica or anyone else to extract and exploit confidential information from its users, the onus may well be on Facebook.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) made that very point during Tuesday’s hearing, asserting that Facebook’s indulgence toward Cambridge Analytica was “in effect willful blindness” and a violation of the FTC order.
During his testimony Tuesday, Zuckerberg expressed a willingness to “work with” various lawmakers to craft some variety of regulation over user data. But in other contexts, Zuckerberg has made it plain that this willingness will go only so far. He has flatly refused, for example, to commit to acceptance of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR, which goes into effect in May.
The GDPR requires explicit consent for the use of individuals’ data, mandates better safeguards of private information and stiffens fines for violations. It only applies to residents of the EU, however, not of those in the United States. From the witness table Tuesday, Zuckerberg indicated a reluctance to incorporate the GDPR standards into Facebook’s policies in the U.S.
Tuesday’s hearing is still underway as I write these words. But what remains unclear is how far Facebook is willing to go to alter its business model to address growing concerns about its grip on individuals’ private data — and how far American lawmakers are willing to go to force it to tighten up.
“I don’t think we’re going to see the kind of innovations we’d like to see around consumer protection if Facebook is left entirely to write the regulations for itself,” says Safiya U. Noble, an expert on digital media platforms at USC.
Federal regulations may not be enough, she adds. It may not be true, as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) implied during the hearing, that Facebook has an effective monopoly on the social media space, but it’s certainly the case that private companies have acquired a vise grip on public discourse.
“Will there be federal dollars appropriated toward public information projects, so we’re not just left to corporations to be the arbiters of the important information we need in a democracy?” Noble asks. “We’ve seen a rapid divestment in public media, public education, and public libraries. These are the institutions that stand in opposition to commercial media. You can’t have regulation on one hand without also investing in alternatives.”
That’s true. The fundamental problem with Facebook isn’t merely that it has misled users about how exposed their private information is, or how indifferent it has been to its own clients’ misuse of that data. It’s that Facebook has become one of the very few public platforms people use to connect with each other, and that it has never come to grips with the responsibility that gives it to make sure users know how their private lives are exploited.
Several of the lawmakers confronting Zuckerberg on Tuesday pledged to regulate the company’s business if it doesn’t regulate itself. What history tells us is that it won’t regulate itself. The ball is in Congress’ court.