Mark Zuckerberg finally appeared before the US Congress to give his testimony regarding the data breach scandal where data-mining company Cambridge Analytica scraped the data of about 87 million Facebook users using tools that Facebook had made accessible to anyone.
The hearing went on for over 5 hours. Zuckerberg spent much of that time apologising.
Senator John Thule aptly summarised everyone's sentiments when he said, "One reason that so many people are worried about this incident [Cambridge Analytica] is what it says about how Facebook works. The idea that for every person who decided to try an app, information about nearly 300 other people was scraped from your service is, to put it mildly, disturbing."
He underscored this point that the breach of privacy happened not due to negligence, but as a direct consequence of Facebook providing tools that allow the manipulation of users. The questions that Zuckerberg had to answer were summarised as follows:
"How will you protect users' data? How will you inform users about the changes that you are making? And how do you intend to proactively stop harmful conduct instead of being forced to respond to it months or years later?"
On the regulation of Facebook
When the topic of regulation was brought up, some senators expressed concern that over-regulation would stifle innovation. One of the did ask Zuckerberg, however, "Why should we let you self-regulate?"
To this, Zuckerberg responded, "Well, Senator, my position is not that there should be no regulation."
Adding to that thought, Zuckerberg stated that it's important to figure out what is the right regulation, not whether regulation is required or not. On further questioning, Zuckerberg admitted that yes, he was open to regulation and that he would be willing to work with the government to help frame regulations as needed.
Is Facebook a monopoly?
Senator Graham: "Who's your biggest competitor?"
Zuckerberg: "Senator, we have a lot of competitors."
Senator Graham: "Who's your biggest?"
Zuckerberg: "I think the categories of – did you want just one? I'm not sure I can give one, but can I give a bunch?"
Senator Graham: "Yes."
Zuckerberg: "So there are three categories that I would focus on. One are the other tech platforms – so Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft – we overlap with them in different ways."
Senator Graham: "Do they do – do they provide the same service you provide?"
Zuckerberg: "In different ways – different parts of it, yes."
The rest of the questions were in a similar vein, but this initial exchange, we feel, aptly summarises Facebook's position. The complete transcript can be found at The Washington Post.
On the price of using Facebook
An important point that was brought up during the hearing was that of the price of using Facebook. The senators pointed out that while "most of us understand" that we are trading some amount of data for a service, Facebook doesn't make the stakes clear to users. "I am not convinced that Facebook's users have the information that they need to make meaningful choices," said Senator Thune.
Another senator pointed out that while the potential for the collection of data is limitless, so was the potential for its abuse.
With that in mind, the senators asked Zuckerberg if he'd be willing to provide users with a paid option, one that would completely protect user privacy, but for a price.
Zuckerberg first tried to convince the senators that the data is needed for relevant ads, that users have an option to limit the amount of data that's shared. "We think offering an ad-supported service is the most aligned with our mission of trying to help connect everyone in the world, because we want to offer a free service that everyone can afford. That's the only way that we can reach billions of people."
"There will always be a version of Facebook that is free", repeated Zuckerberg.
Zuckerberg also tried to convince the senators that users had control over their data, a statement that the Senate refused to accept at face value.
Referring to the Cambridge Analytica (CA) incident, the senators pointed out that while Facebook claimed to have taken action and notified CA, they made no effort to let users know what had happened. Facebook also failed to inform the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) of the breach.
Senator Harris specifically asked Zuckerberg, "Were you part of a discussion that resulted in a decision not to inform your users?" Zuckerberg's response? "I don't remember a conversation like that."
The Facebook CEO had no adequate responses to further questioning in that vein, and ultimately resorted to his boiler-plate response, which was yet another apology for a "mistake" the company made.
On using microphones to mine data
In the course of the hearing, senators asked Zuckerberg about using a phone's mic to "mine" audio data from the surroundings. Several users had complained that they would just be talking about something and then discover ads of that very same thing in the near future.
Zuckerberg categorised the alleged recording feature as a conspiracy theory. He added that the only time Facebook uses a mic is when doing something like recording video, which only happens with user consent.
On the political inclinations of Facebook
A rather interesting question that was brought up involved the firing of Palmer Luckey.
Zuckerberg specifically stated in his testimony that Facebook didn't make decisions based on political views. However, Facebook did fire Palmer Luckey, the creator of the Oculus Rift VR headset.
Luckey's company was bought by Facebook for $3 bn. Luckey continued to work at Oculus while part of Facebook for a few years, but was fired soon after. Luckey was found to have been funding a Pro-Trump "shit-posting" group called Nimble America.
When this was discovered, several developers immediately stopped game development on the platform.
Luckey "left" the company soon after.
Zuckerberg refused to comment on why Luckey was fired, saying that the decision was a personal matter. "I can commit that it was not because of a political view," said Zuckerberg.