The hulking tangle of emails, data breaches, and under-the-table meetings regarding Russia, our election, and our president have been a constant focus of the news cycle for the past year and a half, which represents a Watergate-tier scandal to Democrats and a smear-campaign rationalization for an election loss to Republicans. It is difficult to keep track of all the recent events, but one emerging thread of the unraveling knot — Facebook’s handling of personal information and the resulting questioning from Congress — is not as confusing as it may appear.
So, how did this all start?
Twin reports from the Observer and New York Times released in March of this year broke the news, revealing that a personality test app linked to Facebook not only scraped the data of thousands of users, which was not a huge issue (since takers of the test technically agreed to this data seizure), but also collected information about takers’ friends without their knowledge. This data was handed over to a firm named Cambridge Analytica, which was hired by the Trump campaign in 2016. No one knows for sure if this data was directly used by the Trump campaign, but Cambridge Analytica was founded to tailor targeted political ads using large quantities of data, so many people assume the worst. Facebook was aware of the breach in 2015, but didn’t notify their users at all during that time. Facebook didn’t even ask Analytica to get rid of the data until 2016. They did not attempt to follow up or verify that Analytica obeyed their request. Analytica claims they didn’t use the data for anything, but copies of the data still exist, which suggests the data was never completely destroyed in accordance with Facebook’s request.
What have the hearings revealed about our government?
Congress has a long history of cybersecurity hearings that stretch back to the 1960s, but it has never taken a marked interest in privacy online. Privacy-related hearings have only composed around 10% of over a thousand cybersecurity hearings. Experts in the field hope that the hearings will set a greater precedent for Congress’ involvement with issues of this nature, which will only increase with the continued rise of social media and modern technology.
The senators themselves have drawn a great deal of criticism from the press for displaying a perceived “tech illiteracy.” Senator Orrin Hatch, for instance, didn’t understand how Facebook turned a profit, prompting Zuckerberg to say, “Senator, we run ads.” Senator John Kennedy, similarly, interrogated Zuckerberg about implementing new features protecting privacy, not knowing that his suggestions were already in place:
Kennedy: “Are you willing to go back 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 my right to prohibit you from sharing my data?”
Zuckerberg: “Senator, again, I believe that you already have that control….”
Mark Zuckerberg and Silicon Valley have seemed mostly unscathed for the time being, with Facebook’s stock having risen during the hearings’ duration. According to Reuters, “the value of Zuckerberg’s stake in the company grew about $3 billion” over the course of the two days. Some concessions were made during the hearings proper: Zuckerberg acknowledged Facebook’s lack of transparency with the Cambridge Analytica incident, mentioned their business model that allows people to pay for the removal of ads from their newsfeed, and explained Facebook would be willing to do provide its platform without targeted, data-driven advertising. Tech giants are not in the clear though: Google and Twitter may be next on the chopping block, since Senator Mark Warner has expressed an interest in calling them to the Intelligence Committee. Only time will tell if meaningful change ends up happening, but pressure on these companies to implement more honest policies is closing in from all sides.
Many Republicans also drew criticism for what appeared to be a divergence from the actual subject matter of the hearing, instead airing personal problems with Facebook that is discriminating against conservative politics with their employment and content regulation. Oculus Rift inventor Palmer Luckey (who held a Ted Cruz fundraiser in April 2017) was name-dropped during one of the hearings because Ted Cruz thought Luckey was fired from the company over his political affiliation. Missouri Republican Billy Long brought in a poster about black conservative Facebook page owners Diamond and Silk, who have become free-speech martyrs after their page was flagged for being “unsafe.” Republicans’ mentioning of these grievances has been seen by many as missing the point of Zuckerberg’s appearance and demonstrative of the party’s increased dissociation from reality.
What can we expect in the future?
Among lawmakers, legislation to increase privacy and regulation of the Internet and social media is a subject of high interest. However, they are having difficulty coming up with any concrete proposals. Aside from using the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, which gives EU citizens more control over the export of their personal information, as an example, there are no other tangible policy ideas at the moment.
Some bills are already making their way down the pipeline such as the Honest Ads Act, which attempts to regulate internet advertising like TV ads, with more information being disclosed about who funded the ad, who endorses it, and so forth. Facebook has even stated that they will be willing to obey stipulations like those of the Honest Ads Act even if it is never signed into law. Beyond this, however, few explicit ideas are out there and Congress will likely be using the EU’s GDPR as a template if anything is drafted at all.
Overall, the key takeaways are as follows:
- Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook have not taken any serious hits from the hearings, but have been forced to reconcile with their mistakes and show an interest in policy changes to improve their platform.
- Silicon Valley and the tech industry at large are happy with how the hearings went, but Google and Twitter may be the next entangled in scandals.
- Senators displayed their shallow understanding of the subject matter at times, but it is understandable why they would be confused.
- Some basic legislation is on the way, but more substantive measures will need greater cooperation from experts to make progress.
As for Zuckerberg himself, he is expected to work on transparency with the public in the near future, since he has very rarely made public appearances of this nature. Several memes have been created about his resemblance to a robot or stack of lizards in a trenchcoat. All jokes aside, one should expect at least minor changes to Facebook’s interface and public relations in the wake of this incident. Ultimately, only time will tell if other social media platforms become embroiled in scandal or develop new privacy policies of their own.