It was the longest and most watched public apology in recent times. Last week, over two days and 10 hours, Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg, with a dead-pan face, fielded over 600 questions from nearly 100 US Congressmen. In many ways it was a tribute to democracy.
During the public skewering, Zuckerberg admitted Facebook had failed to protect the data and privacy of 87 million users, including his own account. Data firm Cambridge Analytica had harvested and sold the data to multiple users, including to Donald Trump’s election campaign. He promised to rectify and improve privacy practices and put a legion of 20,000 techies to identify and clean up fake news and remove ‘hate’ posts.
When he refused to answer Senator Richard Durban of Illinois ‘Which hotel was he staying Monday night?’ he was caught in a trap. The question was designed to illustrate how important it was to protect individual privacy.
Zuckerberg also skirted some of the most important questions rocking the digital world like: How much data does Facebook collect from users without consent? FB, the $480 billion, 4th largest corporate giant in the world, generates $40 billion in advertising a year by trading data about the personal lives and preferences it has harvested from account holders.
This is at the very centre of FB’s business. This data is not sold but traded for fees from advertisers who can target audiences for specific products and services.
He also admitted that FB had committed “breach of trust” but there were no guarantees forthcoming it would not happen again. His repeated apologies sounded hollow as his admission that FB knew about the Cambridge Analytica breach of security three years ago spilt out only after New York Times and the Guardian blew the lid off the scam.
To a pointed question by a Senator whether Zuckerberg would support legislation that would notify users in case of a breach of security within 72 hours, the reply was a vague: “Senator, that makes sense to me…we will follow this up later”. A US website Wired.com counted as many as 20 such ‘my-team-will-follow-up’ dodges.
Again, while the FB chief repeatedly asserted that he would overhaul his systems to protect privacy, Zuckerberg failed to answer repeated queries whether FB had grown too big and complex to control and clean up; or whether it was deliberately so structured that it is impossible to control? So it was a theoretical ‘yes’ by Zuckerberg for more internal regulation; and another ‘yes’ for more investment in artificial intelligence (AI) to detect security breaches and fake news.
But then came the admission that content generated by FB’s two billion users was so humungous that even with AI technology would take years to police the whole system. In other words, we will have to live with the animal we don’t like!
Regulation Anytime Soon?
Finally, will the apologies and the massive privacy breach under Zuckerberg’s watch lead to an improved system of regulation? Unlikely.
While Zuckerberg is okay with consenting to some vague assertions that regulation is needed, he is loathe to any specific law outlining privacy norms. Collecting and sharing data of its users is at the very core of FB’s business, and anything that will restrict data usage will be opposed. For instance, when specifically asked whether he would support an ‘opt-in’ requirement (which means FB would have to get users’ consent before sharing their data), Zuckerberg in his testimony said “makes sense to discuss,” but as his wont, he side-stepped adding: “the details around this matter a lot.”
The FB CEO once again also repeated that his company was a ‘technology’ and not a ‘media’ company, because “the primary thing that we do is have engineers who write code and build product and services for other people.” However, as we have seen FB is in the business of hosting content of billions of users, and trading it for advertising revenue. In case it was designated a ‘media’ company, FB would face strict advertising regulations governing television, print and digital media.
The European Union countries are introducing next month their General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). It is designed to give users more control, including the option to choose who has access to their data. The US is still far away from any comprehensive regulation; and with Zuckerberg wriggling out, we will probably have to bear FB for some more time in its present form.