The Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerburg has sat through a two day testimony on Capital Hill to address concerns over how Facebook handles the data of it’s 2.2 billion users. This comes as Mark Zuckerburg continues to manage the fallout from Facebook’s involvement with Cambridge Analytica. Mark Zuckerberg’s four hour appearance before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce followed a five hour session in front of two Senate committees yesterday.
As the questions were asked by the representatives, it become increasing clear that the representatives didn’t understand what they were asking. Even the basics of Facebook’s business model confused them and some seemed quite vague on the basic facts surrounding the Cambridge Analytica scandal. The average age of the senator is 61, somewhat of a gulf to Mark Zuckerburg’s tender age of 33 along with many of the young CEO’s in Silicon Valley. More than once, Mark Zuckerburg had to explain that Facebook does not sell the data of it’s users, but does use that data to allow advertisers to target them with content.
There is a very common misconception that we sell data to advertisers, and we do not sell data to advertisers. What we allow is for advertisers to tell us who they want to reach and then we do the placement. So, if an advertiser comes to us and says, ‘Alright, I’m a ski shop and I want to sell skis to women,’ then we might have some sense because people shared skiing related content or said they were interested in that. They shared whether they’re a woman. And then we can show the ads to the right people without that data ever changing hands and going to the advertiser. That’s a very fundamental part of how our model works and something that is often misunderstood.
Other confusions were even more basic as Senator Schatz confused email with WhatsApp and asking if Facebook can see such messages sent over the encrypted messaging service. It can’t.
Mark Zuckerburg however did apologise for having failed to check in 2015 that Cambridge Analytica had indeed deleted the data gathered about millions of Facebook users. This data was acquired in violation of Facebook’s rules. Zuckerburg was pressed on this further when he stated that Facebook took the decision not to tell it’s users about the data as Cambridge Analytica assured Facebook that the data has been deleted.
In addition, the share price in Facebook increased as Zuckerburg looked increasingly in control throughout the testimony as no senator landed a ‘killer question’ on Mark Zuckerburg. However, on some questions he refused to give an answer as he didn’t have the information to hand stating that ‘I’ll have my team get back to you.’ This happened at least 20 times throughout the 2 day hearing.
As each senator only gets 4 minutes to question Zuckerburg, many of the questions asked were a repeat or a rehash of another question asked before, and a couple of senators took the opportunity to take to their soapbox. Senator Thom Tillis mostly used his few minutes to focus on a tool the Obama campaign employed to collect data on Facebook users. A couple of questions were also unreasonable such as being asked how many Nevada residents were included in the 87 million individuals whose data were obtained by Cambridge Analytica.
But there was also a couple exceptions. Mark Zuckerburg clarified how Facebook will implement the EU’s upcoming General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and also said he was open working with Congress on potential regulation. What kind of regulation would have been a good follow-up question.
In short, we learned more about how ill-equipped Congress is to weigh nuanced questions surrounding technology, data and privacy. A wasted opportunity which in the end offered up very little new information.