By: Lukas Gumbrecht
Facebook and its CEO Mark Zuckerberg continued to face scrutiny this week for its involvement in the sharing and abuse of millions of Americans’ social media data by political consulting firm employed by President Trump, Cambridge Analytica. Cambridge Analytica was exposed by Channel 4 News last month for using an application developer’s access to social media data to aggressively and secretly targeted advertisements to individuals that were most susceptible to their propaganda during the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Zuckerberg had to testify in front of Congress Tuesday and Wednesday of this past week, where he answered almost 600 questions regarding the data misuse. Cambridge Analytica denies any breach of Facebook’s legal terms of service, and they repudiate the idea that their actions were motivated by a desire to profile Americans for political gain in US elections.
The first session of testimony regarding the data scandal took place in the Hart Senate Office Building located on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, and featured over 40 members of the Senate Judiciary and Senate Commerce Committees. The second testimony was given to more than 50 members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee taking place in the Rayburn House Office Building.
Members of Congress were allowed four minutes each, adding up to nearly 10 hours of testimony spanning two sessions. Their goal was to question Zuckerberg about his company’s actions and business model, which tracks Facebook user’s online presence to provide advertisers hyper-accurate audience targeting capabilities. Simply put, Facebook sells marketing access to advertisers of very specific groups depending on how the advertiser wants to market their product or service.
Zuckerberg began each testimony by reading the same written statement – validating rumors of his extensive planning for this appearance, showing a dedication to the script-like notes his team had prepared for him. During a break in the first day of testimony to the Senate, his notes were left open on the table as he left the room and were subsequently photographed by many reporters before the folder was retrieved by a member of the Facebook team.
During his testimony, many members of Congress charged that Facebook sells data as a business model. Zuckerberg continued to retaliate with one point; “We allow [advertisers] to reach people, but we are not giving them access to the data.”
One of the largest revelations of the first day of his testimony occurred when the CEO disclosed that some Facebook employees were cooperating with the investigation surrounding the 2016 US elections. During the Senate hearing, Zuckerberg admitted that members of his company have been interviewed and are working with the special counsel, Robert Mueller, and the team of investigators who are looking into the meddling involved in the 2016 election by Russia and other malicious actors. After being questioned on this topic by Senator Patrick Leahy (D- VT), Zuckerberg confirmed that the company had been served subpoenas related to the investigation but then shortly thereafter walked that back saying, “I want to be careful here because our work with the special counsel is confidential,” he said. “And I want to make sure that in an open session I’m not revealing something that’s confidential.”
The testimony in front of the House was perceived by many as easier for Zuckerberg, due to some representatives endorsing the company and denouncing the idea of regulation, citing the possibility of such rules acting as a hindrance to other tech startups. This also was due to an apparent widespread lack of understanding amongst the representatives as to what exactly Facebook is and what the company does. This angered individuals commenting on the live stream of the hearing. One viewer of the CSPAN live stream commented, “…[Congressman] think they can regulate something that they don’t even understand.” The representatives didn’t want to allow Zuckerberg to evade their questions. Several of the representatives cut off his responses to continue with questioning and reminded him that they had limited time to question him.
At one point in the testimony, Rep. Marsha Blackburn interjected, saying, “I cannot allow you to filibuster right now.” She then went on to question whether Zuckerberg was familiar with developing privacy legislation known as the Browser Act that Rep. Blackburn is working to push through the House. When he admitted that he was not “directly aware” of such legislation, she replied to him saying, “Let’s get familiar with the details,” she said. “As you have heard, we need some rules and regulations, this is only 13 pages … so you can easily become familiar with it.”
Though the value of Facebook dropped nearly $100 billion in the immediate wake of the Cambridge Analytica announcements, the hearings on Capitol Hill satisfied investors and provided a boost to the company shares of nearly 4.5% on Wall Street.
With the conclusion of the sessions, Zuckerberg has taken a degree of responsibility for the questionable actions of the company. Many members of Congress pressed the chief executive to commit his and the company’s support of certain legislation or to enact certain in-house solutions.
We know that legislation is in the works, but the question now is whether or not Congress will muster the political will to enact privacy regulation on the tech industry in some form, or if this will continue to be a self-regulated industry.