I’d been looking forward to watching Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg take an oath to tell the truth to Congress. But the Senate committee that heard Zuckerberg’s testimony on Tuesday afternoon chose not to swear him in. Instead, they decided to trust the man, a strategy that hasn’t worked very well up to now, but there’s always a first time.
Zuckerberg said all the right things:
Yes, the social media company made a huge mistake trusting Cambridge Analytica, the British firm that scooped up data on 87 million users without permission, in an effort to help elect Donald Trump.
And Facebook really should do a better job of helping its users protect their privacy.
And Facebook needs to stop shadowy foreign agents from secretly buying rabble-rousing ads on the service — ads that could stir up social chaos in the United States and around the world.
Zuckerberg came across as open, deferential, even charming. He didn’t at all seem like a man whose corporate empire is in crisis. Which it is, and Zuckerberg knows it.
You can make a decent case that Zuckerberg is being made to suffer for the sins of the American electorate, which had the nerve to place Donald Trump in the White House. After all, the company had for years been making even greater amounts of personal data available to advertisers, app makers, and even the 2012 Obama presidential campaign. And Facebook’s mostly hands-off policy toward its users’ postings has long made it a wide-open venue for all sorts of malice and misinformation. But we now know that abuses at Facebook may have played a role in the biggest political upset of modern times. That’s one way to get our attention.
Indeed, the last tech executive to draw this big a crowd on Capitol Hill was Bill Gates, who dropped by in the late 1990s to reassure the senators that Microsoft Corp. was a great American company that didn’t need the government telling it how to do things.
The Justice Department disagreed and filed an antitrust suit that came this close to smashing Microsoft to bits. The feds settled for an onerous consent decree instead, and Microsoft watched hobbled and helpless as Google dominated Internet search, Apple conquered smartphones, and Facebook began building its social empire.
Zuckerberg wasn’t going to repeat Gates’s mistakes. He admitted his company’s shortcomings and even declared himself willing to accept a measure of government regulation, specifically in the matter of political advertising. He backed a proposed law that would prevent foreign agents from secretly buying political ads, even saying that Facebook would implement the policy on its own, law or no law.
But it’s going to take a lot more to sort out the Facebook privacy crisis and the bigger challenges posed by America’s tech titans.
At least one senator, Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon, suggested breaking up Facebook. But it’s hard to see the Justice Department taking on that challenge. While the company surely counts as a monopoly — during the hearing, Zuckerberg struggled to name a serious competitor — traditional antitrust law requires a showing of economic harm to the public. That’s hard to achieve when the monopolist gives his product away.
So it might be necessary to enact new antitrust legislation aimed at companies like Facebook and Google, unique products of the Internet age that accumulate vast power over the lives of consumers, without charging them a dime.
Any such law might provide for an option to break up the company into smaller, less potent parts. For instance, Facebook owns the photo app Instagram and the messaging app WhatsApp. The company uses the torrents of data it collects from users of these apps to supplement Facebook’s own huge data pool, thereby further tightening its grip on the market. A court-ordered split-up would be a boon to competition while reducing the need for constant government oversight of the companies’ business practices.
But there’s no substitute for regulation when it comes to privacy. Facebook is lobbying hard against a proposed California law that would give citizens in that state privacy protections similar to Europe’s. Consumers would have to give explicit permission to any online company seeking to collect and share their data.
Facebook doesn’t mind government regulation of the political ads they run, because the burden mostly falls on the advertisers. The company dreads any regulation that affects its core business: turning our personal data into cash. Any serious limitations on Facebook’s freedom to track us is bound to erode the company’s vast revenues.
Zuckerberg said he’s willing to adopt better privacy protections even if it costs his company some income. But he wants to be the one to decide just how far to go in protecting our data. And frankly, I don’t trust Mark Zuckerberg to make that decision. After all, he didn’t take an oath.