Mark Zuckerberg finally testified before a congressional joint committee hearing that included nearly half of the US Senate. The topic at hand – Facebook, privacy and users’ personal data.
Conspiratorial summaries have been provided by corners of the media who believe the hearing was a sham, a piece of deliberate political theater. To anyone watching, the sham wasn’t some well-planned conspiracy to deflect blame away from Facebook and confuse Americans about how a digital advertising platform works so it can remain untouched by regulation. Like most conspiracy theories, they give the conspirators far too much credit. No, there is no way you can fake the levels of ignorance on display in the US Senate yesterday.
Of course… It’s shocking that Facebook may have been complicit in giving user’s personal information to malevolent foreign actors with interests in swaying a US federal election in a campaign designed to hijack opinions through skewed, often lying content.
Of course… It’s a complex topic that deserves the attention of a deep ethical study into the nature of digital privacy, advertising and the ownership of what users share on Facebook. The hearing might have been a good place to look into whether or not Facebook’s practice of buying up Instagram and other competitors constitutes a monopolistic antitrust violation.
But maybe… The senators should have prepared for this hearing with Zuckerberg so it didn’t simply turn into a 5-hour tech support call. Doesn’t anyone on the committee have grandchildren, nieces or nephews who could have explained the basics of social media before the hearing?
Sen. Kennedy Vs. Zuckerberg
A typical exchange between Zuckerberg and the joint committee looked something like this exchange with Republican Senator John Neely Kennedy from Louisiana:
Kennedy: “Are you willing to give me control over my data?”
Zuck: “Senator, as someone who uses Facebook, I believe you should have complete control over your data.”
Kennedy: “Okay, are you willing to go back and work on giving me a greater right to erase my data?”
Zuck: “Senator, you can already delete any of the data that’s there or delete all of your data.”
Kennedy: “Are you going to work on expanding that?”
Zuck: “Senator, I think we already do what you’re referring to, but certainly we’re always working to make these controls easier.”
Kennedy: “Are you willing to expand my right to know who you’re sharing my data with?”
Zuck: “Senator, we already give you a list of apps that you’re using and you signed into those yourself and provided affirmative consent.”
The exchange between Senator Kennedy and Zuckerberg summarizes the entire hearing. The senate committee seemed unable or willing to understand its problem with Facebook. It’s frustrating to hear the incompetence of a congressional joint committee tasked specifically to sort out the company’s legal obligations.
The most important questions that weren’t asked:
- How much responsibility should Facebook bear for the content shared or advertised on its platform?
- What kind of standards and practices should digital advertising legally adhere to?
- Should Facebook be broken up due to antitrust concerns?
- And of course, exactly how much power should Facebook users have over the personal information they give to the platform?
Overall the hearing was an affirmation of the Libertarian belief that the government that governs least, governs best. Do we really want these people making decisions that will forever impact how American technology evolves?