Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg received a less than warm welcome in Washington, DC, where he testified before a joint hearing of two Senate committees Tuesday. Among the crowds of spectators lining up to watch Zuckerberg get grilled were members of the activist group CodePink, wearing oversized sunglasses with the words, “Stop Spying,” written across them. Another group wore t-shirts with the hashtag #DeleteFacebook scrawled on them in red Sharpie.
“What many young people feel about Facebook is they’ve kind of turned on us,” said Emmanuel Sessegnon, as he waited to enter the hearing room. “Whereas before we had this expectation when I signed up when I was 13, that when you’re on Facebook what you want to be public will be public, but what you want to be private will be private. What we see here is all this information that was leaked out by Facebook to these third-party companies, we just feel its inappropriate.”
Zuckerberg came to Congress to answer for a series of scandals that have plagued the company since at least the 2016 election. The first, of course, was the news that a Russian propaganda group called the Internet Research Agency used Facebook ads, fake accounts, and pages to influence voters in the run-up to the 2016 US election. The most recent was Facebook’s admission that a data firm named Cambridge Analytica received unauthorized access to up to 87 million users’ private data without their consent beginning in 2014.
Anyone expecting Tuesday’s hearing to be a bloodbath, however, likely came away disappointed. The five-hour marathon felt more like Social Media 101, as Zuckerberg spent the bulk of his time in the hot seat walking through Facebook’s terms of service, the way advertisers target users, the way app developers access people’s information, and how and when and why Facebook collects and stores data. For close observers of both the company and the online ad ecosystem in general, the questions were largely rudimentary. That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.
‘What many young people feel about Facebook is they’ve kind of turned on us.’
In any other scenario, the surface-level questions from lawmakers would be cause for concern (and perhaps they still are here, at least in some cases). But during Tuesday’s hearing, they served their purpose: getting Zuckerberg to clearly articulate how Facebook works, and why it works that way. As the Cambridge Analytica scandal shows, the public seems never to have realized just how much information they gave up to Facebook. Now that they do, they want it to change. If members of Congress who had prepped for the most high-profile hearing in months still pursued simple lines of questioning, imagine just how confused the general public is about Facebook’s power.
As Republican senator Chuck Grassley, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, put it in his opening remarks, “These events have ignited a larger discussion on consumers’ expectations and the future of data privacy in society.”
And so, Zuckerberg answered a seemingly endless battery of questions about Facebook’s products and about 14 years of decision-making that almost always prioritized sharing user data over keeping it private. In many cases, hearing Zuckerberg’s answers aloud only illustrated how unsatisfactory they are.
Zuckerberg explained basics like the difference between advertisers’ access to data and app developers access to data. When it comes to advertising, he said, Facebook acts as the broker, targeting ads to the audiences a given advertiser might like to reach, without ever handing over that raw data. App developers, on the other hand—like the one who built the personality app for Cambridge Analytica—do get access to the raw data, but only if they ask permission first. Again, standard for those who watch this space, but potentially revelatory for most Facebook users.
‘You don’t think you have a monopoly?’
Senator Lindsey Graham
The lingering question, of interest to all levels of digital sophistication: Why did Facebook ever allow apps to ask for quite so much data to begin with? Up until October 2015, for instance, apps including the one Cambridge Analytica commissioned could access the contents of users’ inboxes, if users granted them permission to do so.
“I think the mistake we made,” Zuckerberg said, “is viewing our responsibility as just building tools, rather than viewing our whole responsibility as making sure those tools were used for good.”
Republican senator Lindsey Graham also asked Zuckerberg to say who he considers to be Facebook’s biggest competitors. Zuckerberg stumbled as he rattled off names like Google, Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft. It doesn’t require a deep understanding of Facebook’s inner workings to recognize that while those may be competitors in terms of market dominance, they serve fundamentally different functions. Unable to articulate an adequate answer, Zuckerberg invited another crucial question, one that Graham was quick to ask: “You don’t think you have a monopoly?”
For the most part, Zuckerberg stuck to the script, and often evaded direct answers about precisely how Facebook tracks users from site to site and device to device. Zuckerberg repeatedly argued that Facebook users have had full control of their data all along, which only left open the simplest question of all: Why didn’t they know it?
Through it all, the young CEO apologized repeatedly for Facebook’s mistakes. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I started Facebook, I run it, and I’m responsible for what happens here.”
But the apology rang hollow for members of Congress who said they’d heard it all. “We’ve seen the apology tour before,” senator Richard Blumenthal told Zuckerberg. As proof, he summoned an oversized poster board featuring just a sampling of Zuckerberg’s past apologies in big block lettering. “This was a big mistake on our part, and I’m sorry for it,” read one Zuckerberg quote from 2006. “I’m the first to admit that we’ve made a bunch of mistakes,” read another from 2011.
With that, Blumenthal made it clear that lawmakers didn’t want to hear Zuckerberg apologize. They just wanted to understand how this whole thing works—something Facebook’s users deserve to know as well.