Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg returned to the Capitol yesterday for the second part of his congressional hearing on the collection of 87 million users’ data by voter-profiling company Cambridge Analytica.
This portion of the hearing took place in the House of Representatives, which turned out to be a significantly less sympathetic audience.
On Wednesday, Zuckerberg faced 55 representatives, each of whom were allotted only four minutes of questioning. But most made excellent use of the short time frame and cut right to the chase.
Some have said that Zuckerberg’s Senate hearing went better for the CEO for the simple reason “that many American lawmakers are illiterate when it comes to 21st century technology.”
The House, it seems, does not share that illiteracy — or at least not to the same degree.
Nor do our country’s representatives seem to have any qualms when it comes to reprimanding and interrupting one of the world’s most influential media moguls, which they did frequently.
For the majority of the hearing, representatives honed in on the issues of regulation and oversight, as well as the hot-button topic of affirmative consent — explicitly and directly requesting each individual user to opt in to data sharing.
Some of the most difficult questions for Zuckerberg were those that revolved around the very nature of his company; what is Facebook, is it a monopoly, and if it should be regulated, who could possibly be entrusted with such a task?
Many different groups and individuals have advocated for the regulation of Facebook like a public utility, since access to the internet and the methods of communication it offers are rapidly becoming human necessities, and therefore basic rights.
This suggestion comes with a very risky downside in the form of nationalization.
If Facebook were to become a public utility, it would necessarily have to be monitored by a government agency and/or entity.
But which government?
Many will argue that the most natural choice would be the U.S. government, since that is where the technology and platform were originally developed and is also the place the developer calls home.
However, since Facebook has a presence in virtually every country on the planet, that would mean that the U.S. government would then be in charge of regulating the activity of users in other countries.
It would also open up the possibility for the U.S. government to use that opportunity to conduct surveillance on foreign users, which opens up a can of ethical worms I don’t think anyone wants to touch.
But if not the U.S., then who? Who would America trust to handle and regulate its data?
Every option from NATO to the U.N. is highly problematic and raises the possibility for the development of a global surveillance state.
“We could enter into a phase of what I term “surveillance authoritarianism,” where we don’t face the kind of 1984 model, where there’s open totalitarianism, where we’re kind of dragged off in the middle of the night, kind of situation. But we’re silently and quietly, and person by person, screen by screen, nudged and manipulated according to our individual vulnerabilities. That kind of authoritarianism would even be hard to realize.” – Zeynep Tufekci, associate professor of information and library science at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Representative Bobby Rush picked up on exactly that theme when he took his turn questioning Zuckerberg:
Rep. Bobby Rush: “Mr. Zuckerberg, what is the difference between Facebook’s methodology and the methodology of the American political pariah, J. Edgar Hoover?
Mark Zuckerberg: “Congressman, this is an important question, because I think people often ask what the difference is between surveillance and what we do. And I think that the difference is extremely clear, which is that, on Facebook, you have control over your information. The content that you share, you put there. You can take it down at any time. The information that we collect, you can choose to have us not collect. You can delete any of it. And, of course, you can leave Facebook if you want.”
Even if you are not a Facebook user, it seems the social media giant is monitoring you for “security purposes,” and is most certainly continuing to track and collect your data after you’ve signed out of the platform.
Florida Democratic Representative Kathy Castor grilled Zuckerberg relentlessly on this specific topic, demanding “yes” or “no” answers from the increasingly flustered CEO.
But her criticism wasn’t for Zuckerberg alone. In her final statement, Castor left Congress with both a blistering reprimand and a call for action:
“But I think in the end, I think that what — see, it’s practically impossible these days to remain untracked in America. For all the benefits Facebook has brought and the internet. And that’s not a part of the bargain. And current laws have not evolved and Congress has not adopted laws to address digital surveillance. And Congress should act. And I do not believe that the controls, the opaque agreement — consent agreement — the settings, are an adequate substitute for fundamental privacy protections for consumers. Thank you, I yield back my time. And I’d like to ask unanimous consent that I put my constituents’ questions in the record. Thank you.”
As concerns grow across the world over Facebook’s involvement in both domestic and international affairs, it becomes more likely that this case will have earth-shattering consequences for all companies whose profits are built on data collection and selling.