A day a lot of people have been waiting for has come. I’m currently watching a Facebook live stream by U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Mark Zuckerberg testifying to a joint hearing titled “Facebook, Social Media Privacy, and the Use and Abuse of Data”.
Senator Cruz just grilled Mark Zuckerberg on whether Facebook is a political platform (acting as an entity entitled to First Amendment rights) or a safe-harbour (which would allow users to post anything). Mark Zuckerberg replied that Facebook is a platform for ideas. Cruz, not happy with the answer repeated the question two more times then went into a mini-tirad about republican and “conservatives” being oppressed on Facebook. He cited pages that were removed, he specifically referenced them as “Republican”, “Christian”, “Conservative”.
Cruz wanted to know Zuckerberg’s personal knowledge of the 15,000+ safety workers whose job it is to vet content for hate-speech and the like, he wanted to know if Facebook only hires liberal employees who may have a bias towards removing Republican content.
I’m thinking Cruz missed the point as to why this Judiciary Committee was formed… because of the role of Facebook in the election of a Republican President through the use of Facebook user data that was mined by an app developer and used to set up Cambridge Analytica, a company that has been involved in a bunch of misleading activity in a bunch of elections all over the world.
Largely the questioning that I’ve heard, which is only a little bit from the hours during which Mark Zuckerberg testified, seemed largely ignorant about how the system works, indeed how computer systems work. Cruz in particular seemed only interested in getting it on record that he felt his people were being actively oppressed. Cruz cut Mark Zuckerberg off often when he was attempting to answer a question… it seems that the senators are restricted by time and some want to get as much of their views out as quickly as they could, limiting Mark Zuckerberg’s replies.
The data that Facebook uses is largely provided by us, the user. The other data you may not know Facebook is getting is from the way you interact with other data on the site. The pages you like, the photos your friends post that you like. Also when you’re not actually on Facebook, but you’re browsing other websites, if they use something like the Facebook Pixel, which is invisible to the user, then Facebook gets data about what you’re doing on the site you’re visiting. The same with any site that has a Facebook-supplied “Like” button or Facebook-supplied commenting tools.
A senator asked about Facebook’s declaration that you, the user, own your data, but that you, the user, don’t get a cut of the money Facebook makes from selling access to that data. But Mark Zuckerberg did of course remind him that in the TOS, you are agreeing to allow Facebook to use that data without financial compensation.
A question came up about how the users get to control their content usage. And Mark Zuckerberg replied that for each post, of any kind, users get to decide how that data is used. The senator then went further to ask if the user can determine how Facebook uses the data… and Mark Zuckerberg replied that yes, and quoted the Facial Recognition service that would tag you in photo automatically, he replied that “yes, users can say they don’t want Facebook to recognise them in photos”… but he didn’t say that Facebook STILL records that data, they just don’t show it.
The was clearly a push for Facebook to allow a user to see ALL of the data Facebook captures, including the information about you they buy from data brokers and then match to users through their algorithms, but is never shown to the user.
The hearing continues as I press publish on this post. I just don’t have time to watch it, I have things to do, and I’m not a US citizen and it seems that the blinkers are firmly on with the senators about their own direct constituents and how Facebook affects them. Some of the senators brought up how Facebook allows users to post or target things which would be deemed as illegal if Facebook themselves posted it and in fact are illegal for the user to target or post. An example raised included a realtor who was targeting ads for a new property development to exclude people of colour and how that was illegal according to the Fair Housing Act… I’m all for Facebook doing what they can, but as a global company they can’t also do the work of the police and judiciary of all the nations of the world and all the sub-locations within those nations, to have them do so would be a massive overreach and would effectively make them an arm of the law. If they had to report that a housing firm was targeting only white folk, would they also have to report people who broke local statutes such as drinking alcohol on a Sunday in a location that doesn’t permit it, which they may determine from a person posting a photo of themselves (or being facially recognised in a photo posted by a friend), drinking alcohol where the photo was created on a Sunday. It seems laughable that the government would want Facebook to do something like that, but then maybe, through the call for oversight, they’re also hoping to get access to Facebook’s systems so THEY can have access to all that data at no cost.
Who knows what will come of the testimony from Mark Zuckerberg, likely not a lot, because as I said, Zuckerberg didn’t get a lot of time to respond to questions and the questions largely seemed ignorant of the system, the technology, or the implications of if Facebook did what they asked them to do, the gaping hole it would leave for that one new role for Facebook to have more power than they ever really wanted (or did they).