Mark Zuckerberg testimony: Facebook CEO exploits US senators' tech-illiteracy to escape unhurt despite grilling

It was oddly empowering as a user to see the chief of a tech platform that is so intimately integrated with our lives being put through the grind by lawmakers over breach of trust and privacy. Mark Zuckerberg's testimony and joint hearing before the US Senate's Commerce and Judiciary committees on Tuesday is an important marker in technology's evolutionary journey and growing power to shape the future of human lives.

There might have been some amount of Capitol Hill political theatre involved but there's no harm in a bit of a spectacle. The process of subjecting high and mighty Silicon Valley tech influencers to well-publicised grilling is essential for democracies. It simultaneously warns people against believing in tech nirvana and restores faith in democracies' ability to protect the rights of the people.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a joint Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees hearing regarding the company’s use and protection of user data, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Reuters

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a joint Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees in Washington. Reuters

Sitting in India, where these rights are not even clearly defined — leave alone enforcement — the spectacle carried an added significance, showing us the distance that we still have to travel. Yet we don’t have enough time. India is already Facebook's largest market with the highest number of users.

It was gratifying to see the 33-year-old billionaire show contrition, deference and remorse for his lapses and promising a reformation in Facebook's handling of users' privacy. More so because in trading our privacy for convenience, networking and community bonding, we really hadn't understood or cared for the underlying risks. It is only when these digital ecosystems started taking over our lives that we woke up to the fact that so much of our data has been handed over to the platforms that we made ourselves vulnerable to being manipulated.

Given technology's integration with human lives, it is impractical to suggest a return to utopian innocence. Yet clearly there is need for an urgent change. Does the answer lie in a more regulated platform, a thorough change in privacy rules, or transformation of the business model?

The grilling was partly an effort to search for answers. The room in the Senate Office Building packed with Congressional staff members, the wider public lined up outside and millions more watching on live television with Zuckerberg perched on the hot seat became an arena for a futuristic battle.

The Facebook CEO had dressed for the part. He also appeared calm and composed under relentless, hours-long questioning though the nervousness was betrayed by the occasional reaching out for a gulp of water. Here, he was a Silicon Valley representative — a new age Yoda of 21st century technology — and those around him trying to at once to question him and getting educated in return.

And that is also where the grilling failed in its primary purpose. For all their stated and unstated hostility the senators of US — the world's most tech-aware nation — appeared as tech-challenged dinosaurs. Barring a few, most elderly members had zero knowledge of technology with the result that most questions failed to dive beneath a surface understanding of Facebook's machinations.

The Senators were clearly out of their depth, and in some cases it resulted in hilarious exchanges. Senator for Utah Orrin Hatch wanted to know how Facebook sustains a business model while running as a free service. Zuckerberg, struggling to retain composure, responded: "Senator, we run ads." "I see, that's great…," replied Hatch.

Senator Lindsey Graham, one of the better prepared ones, wanted to know if Facebook runs a monopoly but his analogy of car manufactures fell woefully short of understanding the digital ecosystem that Facebook straddles. It resulted in another bewildering exchange.

Senator John Kennedy had a number of suggestion for Zuckerberg on tightening of data privacy, only to be told in return that all those options were already available.

Kennedy: Are you willing to go back and and work on giving me a greater right to erase my data?
Zuckerberg: Senator, you can already delete any of the data that's there, or delete all of your data.
Kennedy: Are you willing to expand that, work on expanding that?
Zuckerberg: Senator, I think we already do what you're referring to…
Kennedy: Are you willing to expand my right to know who you're sharing my data with?
Zuckerberg: Senator, we already give you a list of apps that you're using. And you signed into those yourself, and provided affirmative consent.
Kennedy: Are you willing to give me the right to take my data on Facebook and move it to another social media platform?
Zuckerberg: Senator, you can already do that.

Lost in the translation were crucial questions on why Facebook had been casual about data protection which led to Cambridge Analytica gaining private information of 87 million users worldwide (5.6 lakh Indians), abuse of privacy and specific steps that Zuckerberg plans to take on a range of issues that are involved in Facebook's process of collecting data and monetizing it. Between the lawmakers' stated intention on grilling Zuckerberg and their inability to understand the workings of Facebook, there was enough space for the 33-year-old billionaire to exploit and escape by peddling homilies.

For instance, when Senator Dean Heller wanted to know what are Zuckreberg's core principles in trading off users' data with advertisers for monetisation, the Facebook CEO replied that his company doesn't "sell" data at all, and proceeded to give an explanation on the differences between the way sellers and app developers access Facebook's data.

Senator Heller: Have you ever drawn the line on selling data to an advertiser?
Zuckerberg: Yes, Senator. We don't sell data at all… So the way the ad system work is advertisers can come to us and say, I have a message that I'm trying to reach a certain type of people. They might be interested in something, they might live in a place, and then we help them get that message in front of people. But this is one of the... it's widely mischaracterised about our system that we sell data. And it's actually one of the most important parts of how Facebook works is that we do not sell data. Advertisers do not get access to people's individual data."

As CNN's Dylan Byers writes: "Whenever a lawmaker pointed out something Facebook had done wrong, he spoke about what the company was doing to make it right. Whenever he couldn't answer a question, he simply promised to get back to lawmakers later."

If Zuckerberg's intention was to obfuscate from the real issue — Facebook's corrosive business model that puts advertisers' interest ahead of users — and steer conversation towards "making his company better" (a subjective and vague position) then he made a fabulous job of it. He set the tone during the testimony ahead of the hearing.

Zuckerberg focused on Facebook's stated purpose: to connect people and build businesses and communities but he didn't talk explicitly about the motivation behind that purpose — which is to monetise users.

"Facebook is an idealistic and optimistic company. For most of our existence, we focused on all the good that connecting people can bring." What he didn't say was that Facebook isn't a philanthropic platform that seeks only to bring people together but a program that seeks to harness the power of data. If we note his testimony carefully, it becomes evident that Zuckerberg has no plans to revamp the business model.

"It's not enough to just connect people, we have to make sure those connections are positive. It's not enough to just give people a voice, we have to make sure people aren't using it to hurt people or spread misinformation."

In other words, Facebook still wants to be the custodian of data when developments over the years clearly show that it has done a terrible job of it. Zuckerberg did not say that he will prioritise users over advertisers, only insisted that he will try to ensure that it is not misused. But when the custodian itself is under scrutiny, such evasive tactics do not do enough to address the heart of the problem.

The prospect is scarier in India, Facebook's largest market where politicians have failed to ensure even a rudimentary framework for data protection. Facebook revelation in India has triggered a lot of debate but those have been restricted to largely political bickering among parties. Not a single policy issue has been taken up for discussion. Zuckerberg promised to uphold the sanctity of elections in India but we only have his word to go by. From what we have learnt, that doesn't account for much.

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Updated Date: Apr 12, 2018 02:08:58 IST

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