Explainer: What You Should Know About Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s Senate Hearings
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Explainer: What You Should Know About Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s Senate Hearings

What just happened?

On Tuesday, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg gave testimony (though not officially under oath) before a joint hearing of the Senate Judiciary and Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation committees. On Wednesday, Zuckerberg testified at a second hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. He was asked to appear before Congress to discuss such issues as data privacy and Russian use of his social network to meddle in the 2016 election.

Why is Facebook and Zuckerberg now under scrutiny?

Facebook has been at the center of recent data privacy scandals and concerns. The Senate hearings were particularly interested in learning about the connection between Facebook and Cambridge Analytica.

Last month the New York Times reported that British data analysis firm Cambridge Analytica had “harvested private information from the Facebook profiles of more than 50 million users without their permission.” As law professor Andrew Keane Woods explains,

The data that Cambridge Analytica obtained seems to have come from Aleksandr Kogan, a researcher at Cambridge University who convinced hundreds of thousands of Facebook users to take a Facebook-linked personality quiz—thereby granting Kogan access, through Facebook’s developer platform, to a treasure trove of user data. Kogan then shared this information with Cambridge Analytica. . . .

Kogan was able to collect such data because Facebook offers a popular feature called Facebook Login, which lets people simply log in to a website or app using their Facebook account instead of creating new credentials. In 2015, developers who created apps that used Facebook Login were allowed—with Facebook’s permission—to collect some information on the users network of friends. According to the Times, Kogan was able to use the data gleaned from the friends’ profiles to match users to other records and build psychographic profiles.

Facebook had also reportedly been collecting call records and text-messaging data from Android devices. The company denies it was collecting the data without permission, that it was an “opt-in” feature, that it “helps you find and stay connected with the people you care about, and provides you with a better experience across Facebook.” Still, the concerns have led the Federal Trade Commission to launch a nonpublic investigation into the Facebook’s privacy practices.

How did Zuckerberg say Facebook would address the Cambridge Analytica data breach?

Zuckerberg identified three steps his company would be taking:

1) Learning exactly what Cambridge Analytica did, and telling everyone affected.

2) Making sure no other app developers are misusing data and investigating every app that had access to a large amount of information in the past. If a developer is improperly using data, Facebook will ban them from their platform and notifiy everyone affected.

3) To prevent similar data breaches, Facebook will be making sure developers can’t access as much information.

Zuckerberg says that—as explained in the first line of Facebook’s Terms of Service—the user controls and owns the information and content they put on the platform.

How does Facebook deal with screening content? 

Zuckerberg punted on specific cases and controversies involving content being removed or censored on his platform. But he says by the end of 2018, Facebook will have more than 20,000 people working on security and content review so that when content gets flagged, they can determine if it violates their policies and, if necessary, take it down.

The long-term goal, said Zuckerberg, is to have such content review conducted by artificial intelligence. He notes that “99 percent of the ISIS and Al Qaida content that we take down on Facebook” is done by artificial intelligence systems before any human sees it. But such review for “hate speech” is difficult, he says, “because determining if something is hate speech is very linguistically nuanced.” He believes it will take between 5 to 10-years to have artificial intelligence tools that can “get into some of the nuances” of hate speech.

What is Facebook doing to prevent foreign actors from interfering in U.S. elections?

Zuckerberg said they are disallowing fake accounts on Facebook and deploying new artificial intelligence tools that “do a better job of identifying fake accounts that may be trying to interfere in elections or spread misinformation.”

Is Zuckerberg opposed to new regulations to address the data privacy problems?

Not really. When asked, he said, “I think that there are a few categories of legislation that—that make sense to consider. Around privacy specifically, there are a few principles that I think it would be useful to—to discuss and potentially codified into law.” He gave three examples: explain what you are doing with data, give people complete control, and enable innovation

When asked if Facebook would “as a company, welcome regulation” Zuckerberg also said that “I think, if it’s the right regulation, then yes.”

Is Facebook involved with Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference?

Yes, Zuckerberg confirmed that Facebook has been interviewed by and is “working with” the Special Counsel’s Office.

What other key points did Zuckerberg reveal during the hearing?

Some other highlights from the hearings:

• Zuckerberg says Facebook is “responsible for the content” on its platform.

• He also says he is “very committed to making sure that Facebook is a platform for all ideas” but when asked was unable to define what his company would prohibit under the rubric of “hate speech.”

• When asked if his company was a monopoly, he said, “It certainly doesn’t feel like that to me,”

What did we not learn from the hearing?

There are dozens of issues that Zuckerberg said he’s check with his team about and provide answers to the Senators. The Senate members can also submit follow-up written questions that will be entered into the record.

Senator Kamala Harris, for example, told Zuckerberg there are “several critical questions for which you don’t have answers,” adding, ““Those questions have included whether Facebook can track a user’s browsing activity even after the user has logged off of Facebook. Whether Facebook can track your activity across devices even when you are not logged into Facebook. Who is Facebook’s biggest competition? Whether Facebook may store up to 96 categories of users’ information. Whether you knew [about Cambridge Analytica researcher Aleksandr] Kogan’s terms of service and whether you knew if Kogan could sell or transfer data.”

Image Source: (CC) Brian Solis, www.briansolis.com and bub.blicio.us

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).