Mark Zuckerberg faces tough questions from US Congress on Facebook

Here are six questions he might not like

 Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Addressing criticisms of naivety, Mr Zuckerberg has said: “I was maybe too idealistic.”

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Addressing criticisms of naivety, Mr Zuckerberg has said: “I was maybe too idealistic.”

 

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and chief executive, will be assailed by lawmakers when he testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington this week about the Cambridge Analytica data leak, fake news and Russian election meddling. Ron Wyden, a senior Democratic senator and longstanding ally of the tech industry, said last week: “Mr Zuckerberg is going to have a couple of very unpleasant days before Congress.”

Here are the six key questions politicians on Capitol Hill need to ask.

1. Can Congress look inside Facebook’s advertising systems?

Facebook has a wealth of data on who advertisers want to target and how. So far, it has only publicly revealed to Congress the adverts and targeting used by the Russian Internet Research Agency. If Congress were granted access to Facebook’s systems, it may be able to see more detailed targeting from Russian troll farms, as well as learn more about who Cambridge Analytica targeted, with what messages, and how much they spent.

Congress could also examine the developers who had access to vast amounts of data on Facebook’s platform, to see if, for example, other analytics companies or political marketers were behaving in a similar way to Cambridge Analytica. But the social network is likely to push back, arguing that to protect the privacy of users and advertisers, it cannot grant the government access.

The group would also like to protect its commercial intellectual property: the targeting system is lucrative and competitors would be keen to understand in more detail how it works. Some data might be able to be anonymised, as in a new elections research initiative launched on Monday, but that might also make it harder for Congress to try to spot bad practices.

2. Why didn’t you report the data leak earlier?

Mr Zuckerberg is vulnerable over Facebook’s past decisions to keep the data leak under wraps. The company realised that Cambridge Analytica had, in its words, “improperly obtained” user data back in 2015. But instead of reporting it to data protection authorities or telling affected users, it chose to ask the data analytics firm and the Cambridge professor who originally harvested the data to delete it. Facebook did not even ban Cambridge Analytica from the platform until last month.

The social network said that was because it was not an advertiser in 2015 — but it took no measures to ensure it could never become one. When Cambridge Analytica started using Facebook for its political campaigns, Facebook employees even worked alongside the company. Lawmakers will press Mr Zuckerberg over why Facebook did not go public earlier.

3. Why can’t you tell us where the data have gone?

Lawmakers will try to make Mr Zuckerberg squirm over Facebook’s blind spots. It does not know whether Cambridge Analytica still has the data of up to 87 million users, exactly how many users were affected and whether the data were used in the Trump campaign (something Cambridge Analytica denies). The social network is waiting until the UK information commissioner finishes its investigation to embark on its own.

The heart of the problem is that once data have leaked, there is no way to track them. Lawmakers can argue that is why Facebook should have had tighter controls on who could access data and for what purpose — and should have developed better ways to detect when an app had started to download it.

4. Why shouldn’t we regulate you?

Beyond the risk of being abandoned by users, the biggest threat that Facebook faces is legislation from Congress. Facebook has long argued that it can police itself. Improvements announced last week were designed to prove it is being proactive. But Facebook also made a significant concession: it executed a U-turn by saying it now supports the only concrete legislative proposal related to its business. That bill, the Honest Ads Act, would require tech companies to keep copies of digital political ads, report how much they cost and who paid, and make them searchable to the public.

The act, however, addresses only a sliver of Facebook’s activities and does not touch on consumer privacy. Counting in the company’s favour is congressional gridlock. Mr Zuckerberg could say he is open to regulation knowing that Congress remains divided over how to act and is unlikely to pass any new laws in this election year.

5. How much profit will you sacrifice to fix this?

Both Mr Zuckerberg and his second-in-command, Sheryl Sandberg, have vowed not to change Facebook’s business model. Profits from targeted advertising have made Facebook one of the largest companies in the world: last year it generated $16 billion (€13 billion ) in net income on almost $40 billion of revenue. So far, Facebook has made many announcements about its plans to restrict the data that developers can access, be it offering surveys, games or dating apps. It has not pledged to reduce the amount of data Facebook itself collects to help advertisers.

Facebook could promise major changes — such as not tracking people’s web activity, or not using technologies that analyse what or who is in photos uploaded to the network — but reducing this kind of data collection would be likely to hit its bottom line.

6. Are you the problem?

The Cambridge Analytica saga has prompted the most searching questions to date about whether Mr Zuckerberg is the right person to lead Facebook. Lawmakers will be tempted to raise the ultimate form of accountability: the founder stepping down (as Travis Kalanick did at Uber last year). Addressing criticisms of naivety, Mr Zuckerberg has said: “I was maybe too idealistic.” That is unlikely to be enough for Congress.

– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018