EditorialOpinion

In House, Tougher Questions for Zuckerberg

WASHINGTON — Mark Zuckerberg, the billionaire founder and chief executive of Facebook, faced a much tougher crowd on the House side of Capitol Hill in his second day of congressional testimony.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle grilled Zuckerberg over his company’s handling of user data and were particularly focused on the platform’s privacy settings, which put the onus on users to protect their privacy.

Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., pressed Zuckerberg on whether Facebook would agree or refuse to change Facebook’s default settings to minimize collection and use of users’ data.

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“This is a complex issue that deserves more than a one-word answer,” Zuckerberg answered.

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“That’s disappointing to me,” Pallone responded.

The concern was echoed by Rep. Bobby L. Rush, D-Ill., who pointed a finger at Zuckerberg and asked: “Why is the onus on the user to opt in to privacy and security settings?”

While Tuesday’s Senate hearing contained tough questions, the lawmakers were generally deferential to Zuckerberg. That was less the case in the House, where lawmakers repeatedly interrupted Zuckerberg and chided him for not answering questions to their satisfaction.

Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, kicked off the hearing by declaring that “while Facebook has certainly grown, I worry it has not matured.”

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Walden floated the prospect of regulation, saying that “I think it is time to ask whether Facebook may have moved too fast and broken too many things.”

Later in the hearing, Zuckerberg said regulation was “inevitable.” But he repeated that the right kind of regulation mattered and he pointed out that some regulation could only solidify the power of a large company like Facebook, which could hurt startups.

On Tuesday, several senators sounded a similar tune, saying Facebook couldn’t be trusted with the vast amounts of data being collected, much of which was being done without users’ full understanding. Three senators introduced privacy legislation that would require users’ permission to collect and share their data.

On Wednesday, Zuckerberg was asked to agree to privacy legislation that requires permission for data collection. Zuckerberg demurred and did not express support for any specific legislative proposal.

But he also did not dismiss a proposal from Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., to create a digital consumer protection agency that would subject Facebook and its peers to some degree of government involvement.

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Zuckerberg called the idea one “that deserves a lot of consideration” but said that the “details on this really matter.”

Last week, Zuckerberg made a promise. He said that Facebook planned to give users worldwide the same privacy controls required by a tough new data protection law which will go into effect in the European Union next month.

On Wednesday, Reps. Gene Green, D-Texas, and Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., pressed him repeatedly on the issue. And Zuckerberg repeated his commitment to give all users those controls.

But European regulators and privacy advocates said over the last week that a number of Facebook’s current practices seemed violate the new law, called the General Data Protection Regulation.

For one thing, the European law requires privacy by design and default. European experts said that, in their view, that would require Facebook to turn off a number of advertising and privacy settings which are currently set to sharing and instead ask user permission to turn them on.

Zuckerberg answered the legislators’ questions by saying that the company plans to put a tool “at the top of everyone’s app” where users will be able to make privacy and sharing choices. But the company may not offer affirmative consent — asking users to explicitly opt-in — in every country, depending on legal issues, he said.

Facebook currently allows users to download a copy of their personal data such as their messages, likes and posts.

But Green wanted to know if Facebook would comply with the European law — and extend those protections to users worldwide — by providing individuals with the complete records and profiles that Facebook has compiled on them. That would include any data the company collected about its users by tracking them on other websites, and any data the company bought or acquired from third parties about users, and any categorizations or algorithmic scores Facebook created about users, regulators said.

Zuckerberg said he believed all of the data is available.

That isn’t true for the moment — at least for a couple of reporters who recently downloaded their Facebook data. But Facebook has about six weeks to figure out how to give users a copy of their algorithmic scores, web tracking data and other records the social network has compiled before the law goes into effect in Europe.

<strong>— The Uses of Facial Recognition Technology</strong>

Facial recognition — a technology that scans your face and converts into a mathematical code that can be used to identify you in any other facial photo or video still — is a hot-button topic on both sides of the Atlantic. That is because it involves measuring and collecting data about people’s unique physical attributes.

Facebook uses the technology in a name-tagging feature that can automatically suggest the names of people in users’ photographs. But regulators in Europe have cracked down on Facebook for rolling it out without users’ explicit opt-in consent. And privacy groups in the United States filed a complaint last week to the Federal Trade Commission saying Facebook’s recent expanded use of the technology violated a settlement the company made with the agency in 2011.

When legislators asked him about the tough new European privacy rules Wednesday, Zuckerberg said he was generally concerned that some constraints could restrict companies based in the United States from innovating with technologies such as facial recognition — allowing China to take the lead in developing the technology.

Even so, Zuckerberg said, technologies such as face recognition should require permission from users.

For sensitive technologies, he said, “I do think you want a special consent.”

<strong>— Is Facebook a Monopoly?</strong>

Zuckerberg pushed back against suggestions that Facebook is essentially a monopoly, “without any true competitor,” as put by Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich.

Reiterating a point made Tuesday before the Senate, Zuckerberg said that there is a “lot of competition” that Facebook managers “definitely feel in running the company.” He mentioned, but did not name, eight apps that users rely on to communicate.

He left out that, according to comScore, Facebook owns three of the top 10 mobile apps used in the United States: Facebook, Facebook Messenger and Instagram.

Of the remaining seven, Google owns five (YouTube, Google Search, Google Maps, Google Play and Gmail). Only Snapchat and Pandora are independent.

<strong>— Cambridge Analytica and Russia’s Election Interference</strong>

Lawmakers pressed Zuckerberg on why Facebook didn’t inform users about the harvesting of user data by Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm with ties to the Trump campaign, in 2015, when it was informed of the data abuse.

Pallone, the New Jersey Democrat, chided Zuckerberg for his company’s naïveté in not realizing how Facebook data could be used.

“For all the good it brings, Facebook can be a weapon for those, like Russia and Cambridge Analytica, that seek to harm us and hack our democracy,” he said.

Several lawmakers have pointed out to Zuckerberg, repeatedly, that the Obama campaign used a Facebook app to also scrape data from users and their friends in 2012.

But those lawmakers have failed to mention one very important distinction between the Obama campaign’s app and Cambridge Analytica’s app: The Obama app was actually on Facebook itself, and it was very clear about who and what the data would be used for.

The app used to scrape data for Cambridge Analytica was accessed through a personality questionnaire hosted on a site outside of Facebook, and it appeared to users to be for academic research, not for a political data company owned by a wealthy Republican donor and dedicated to reshaping the American electorate.

Asked whether Facebook will sue the researcher who created the app, Aleksandr Kogan, or Cambridge Analytica, Zuckerberg said “it’s something we’re looking into.”

<strong>— Partisan Bias and Facebook’s Responsibility As a Publisher</strong>

Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, zeroed in on a line of questioning that his Texas counterpart in the Senate, Ted Cruz, also asked, pressing Zuckerberg on why Facebook has been allegedly censoring content from conservative organizations and Trump supporters such as Diamond and Silk.

Barton also asked Zuckerberg if he would agree that Facebook would work to ensure it is “a neutral public platform,” a question also asked by Cruz.

“I do agree that we should give people a voice,” Zuckerberg said.

Republican lawmakers returned several times to the issue of bias on Facebook.

Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana questioned whether Facebook’s newsfeed algorithms tamp down conservative news in favor of more left-leaning outlets, to which Zuckerberg responded that “there is absolutely no directive” to have “any kind of bias in anything we do.”

The proliferation of so-called fake news has put Zuckerberg in an awkward spot, as the company promises to do a better job of weeding out propaganda and falsehoods but insists it cannot police free speech.

Out in the hall during a break in the hearing, Rep. Billy Long, R-Mo., also expressed frustration about Facebook’s treatment of Diamond and Silk, two pro-Trump video personalities who have complained about being censored by the platform.

“It seems like they take down a lot more conservative content than they do liberal,” he said.

Long said that he needed more answers about the Diamond and Silk situation, and that he hoped Zuckerberg could ensure that the company’s thousands of moderators weren’t biased against conservatives.

“He better hope he does it, not us,” Long added. “Or Congress is going to get involved and regulate a private industry.”

<strong>— What Kind of Company Is Facebook?</strong>

Walden of Oregon foreshadowed a line of questioning for Zuckerberg on how Facebook works and if the social media site has become a publisher or utility service that deserves regulation.

“What exactly is Facebook?” Walden asked, listing industries such as advertising, publishing and even telecom, or “common carrier in the information age.”

The definitions matter. If Facebook is viewed as a telecommunications service that is more like a utility, it may be regulated by the Federal Communications Commission. If lawmakers define Facebook as a publisher, it could also fall under regulations at that agency.

“I consider us to be a technology company,” Zuckerberg answered. “The primary thing we do is have engineers that write code and build services for other people.”

Facebook, he said, is not a software company, despite creating software. It is not an aerospace company, even though it builds planes. It is not a financial institution, although it offers payment tools for users.

“Do we have a responsibility for the content people share on Facebook? I think the answer to that question is yes,” Zuckerberg said.