What will it take to rein Facebook in? Not this sorry excuse for a public grilling

Not only did the hearings not damage Mark Zuckerberg, on day one alone, they enriched him personally to the tune of around $3 billion, as the share price shot up

Speaking at the combined Senate Judiciary and Commerce committee Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg admitted his personal data was sold to malicious third parties.

 

Sorry may be the hardest word for many people, but not Mark Zuckerberg. Few people in the public eye spend so much of their time sincerely and humbly apologising, without doing anything much at all.

In 2003, still at Harvard, he apologised for “any harm done”. In 2006, he’d moved onto we “really messed up”. In 2007, we “simply did a bad job”. In 2010, “we move too fast”. By 2011, he was saying sorry for “a bunch of mistakes”. By 2017, he was meekly “asking for forgiveness.”

He managed not to apologise again during Wednesday’s congressional hearings, as Democratic senator Jan Schakowsky read out a selection of his greatest hits in the apology charts, and concluded that since he seemed to spend so much time being sorry, “self-regulation simply does not work”. At least, he didn’t apologise right then – instead, he swallowed hard and blinked like a robot in need of a data reboot. The inevitable sorry came at a different moment, when he said that “one of my greatest regrets in running the company is that we were slow in identifying the Russian information operations in 2016.”

Schakowsky’s was one of a handful of real blows landed on Zuckerberg during the two-day hearings in Washington DC, most of them on the second day.

Zuckerberg’s first day before the US Senate’s Commerce and Judiciary Committee on Tuesday - a group of people whose grasp of technology suggested they may struggle to turn off caps lock on their smartphone - was so lacking in teeth it was dubbed the “we-love-Zuck” show by US journalist Kara Swisher. Senators seemed either in awe of the wunderkind, or lacking the most rudimentary understanding of social media. Either way, the promised moment of reckoning came and went, with the question being what was for lunch. “How do you sustain a business model in which users don’t pay for your service?” one senator, Orrin Hatch, asked apparently genuinely at a loss. “Senator, we run ads,” Zuckerberg replied.

There was a certain satisfying irony in the fact that this man - someone so paranoid about his own privacy he has put a sticker over the camera on his laptop - left his notes sitting open on the desk during a break, with around 100 film and stills cameras pointed at them. Inevitably, photographs of the notes ended up on the Internet. Just as inevitably, the contents were about as meaty as a vegan ice cube. “I hear you,” he was instructed to say on the question of accountability, the same prompt note recently given to President Trump recently. One section read: “Break up FB? US tech companies key asset for America; break up strengthens Chinese companies” – but unfortunately nobody asked the question. On GDPR, he was chided not to say “we already do what Europe requires”.

Not only did the hearings not damage Mark Zuckerberg, on day one alone they enriched him personally to the tune of around $3 billion as the share price shot up by nearly five per cent. It rose by almost 2.5 per cent on day two, when he was before a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing. There’s rough justice, Silicon Valley style.

The questioning on day two was much more bracing, but the more demanding and damning the questions got, the less Zuckerberg appeared able to answer them. Questions about whether Facebook tracks users around the web when they are not logged in, and if it tracks people between devices, seemed to confuse him.

Zuckerberg’s robotic demeanour faltered as congresswoman Kathy Castor asked whether Facebook is collecting personal information on people who have logged out of Facebook, and who do not even have Facebook accounts. “Congresswoman, I believe that we… I’m not sure… I don’t think that that’s what we are tracking,” he stammered.

California Democrat Anna Eshoo asked him: “Are you willing to change your business model to protect users’ privacy?” “Congresswoman, I’m not sure what that means,” he answered.

The few headline-grabbing moments – Zuck’s revelation that his own data was one of the 87 million user accounts accessed by Cambridge Analytica – was little more than a calculated distraction. Over and over again, he returned to Facebook’s foundational myth that users are in control of their own data, a claim that is patently at odds with his company’s admission in a statement last week that most of its two billion users have had their data scraped by malicious actors. Either Facebook has only just realised this after recent revelations, or it has known for years. Either is equally damming.

We used to spout nonsense about how it didn’t really matter if your data had been compromised so long as you had nothing to hide, a mantra we happily swallowed and that suited the tech companies just fine to have us believe. Now, of course, we know different; our data is being packaged and exploited by companies like Cambridge Analytica with the ultimate goal of manipulating society in ways we don’t even yet fully appreciate. It is, as Zuckerberg kept saying, an “arms race”. What he didn’t say is that he created the arms.

What will it take to rein Facebook in? Not this frequently sorry excuse for a public grilling, which only occasionally skimmed beneath the surface of the big issues and which elicited only repeated, empty commitments to take a “broader view” of its responsibilities. For Zuckerberg, these two days will count as a resounding success chiefly because he managed to say so little of any substance.

And so there are many questions that remain unanswered. When exactly did Facebook know that its users’ private information had been accessed without their consent? When it found out about Cambridge Analytica in December 2015, was a decision made to withhold that information from users? How many more Cambridge Analyticas are there that we still don’t know about? And how can users really be said to be in control of our own data, when even Zuckerberg seems not to fully understand when, how, by whom and to what end our activity was or is being tracked?

Ultimately, there are only two related things that will cause Facebook to change its ways: pressure from shareholders or a mass public abandonment of the platform and all its other apps. The first won’t happen without the second. Facebook claims there’s no evidence of mass deactivation for now, and the share price is continuing its vertiginous upward ascent, which is why there’s no real urgency to address this, beyond more empty apologies. By the time the next Cambridge Analytica comes along, it may be too late. For them and for us -- for the vestiges of our privacy, and for our concept of what constitutes a fully functioning, democratic society.

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