It was the House’s turn yesterday to put Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on the hot seat as he faced another five hours of questions from lawmakers.
The topics of discussion were similar. Over the course of today’s hearing, Zuckerberg faced another round of questions about whether Facebook should be regulated, whether it had turned a blind eye to fake news, whether it was to blame for Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, whether it was biased, whether it was a monopoly, whether it should be considered a publisher and whether or not it could be trusted with the vast troves of user data that it has siphoned up over the last 14 years.
But the tone was notably tougher.
Senators who questioned Zuckerberg yesterday, with a few exceptions, allowed Zuckerberg to finish his remarks. House members were a bit more animated — Zuckerberg was interrupted many times, usually to be told by an irritated House member that he not answered a question to their satisfaction.
Representative Bobby L. Rush, a Democrat of Illinois, actually pointed and shook his index finger at Zuckerberg and while asking him:
“Why is the onus on the user to opt in to privacy and security settings?”
And that question, in a variety of forms — with a host of others around data privacy — was the favored topic in a discussion that became quite animated.
One member, Congresswoman Anna Eshoo of California, asked Zuckerberg if he was one of the 85 million Americans whose data had inappropriately ended up in the hands of political consultancy Cambridge Analytica. It was.
The idea of regulation for Facebook echoed loudly throughout the hearing, with many House members asking whether Facebook’s repeated foibles around consumer data meant that it was time for regulators to step in and put tighter parameters on the platform.
“I think it is time to ask whether Facebook may have moved too fast and broken too many things,” Oregon Rep Greg Walden commented. Zuckerberg once again noted his belief that regulation is inevitably coming, but today warned that Congress could easily hurt smaller start-ups who lack the scale to soak up high compliance costs.
Zuckerberg reiterated his broad support of the “right” type of data privacy regulation throughout the hearing — but he was not very specific on what those regulatory measures should look like.
Representatives Gene Green of Texas and Jan Schakowsky of Illinois both dialed in on that issue hard, particularly with respect to a promise Zuckerberg made last week to give every Facebook user on Earth the same privacy controls required by the EU’s new data protection law — GDPR.
GDPR, among other things, requires that platforms make privacy the default setting and leave it to users to hand switch-off protections they don’t want in favor of sharing their data. That is currently not how Facebook works, and the change would mean Facebook would have to ask users to turn on sharing settings, instead of defaulting to on and making users shut them off.
The law also would not allow Facebook to track users who had logged out of the app — something Facebook currently does, according to Zuckerberg’s day two testimony on the hill, but only for “security purposes.”
But lawmakers repeatedly questioned if Facebook can be trusted to do with the data what it says it does, given the troubles of the last few years. New Jersey Rep Frank Pallone was one of many legislators that noted Facebook failed to inform its users of Cambridge Analytica’s data harvesting campaign when they became aware of it — and that they weren’t living up to the responsibility of having so much consumer data on hand.
“For all the good it brings, Facebook can be a weapon for those, like Russia and Cambridge Analytica, that seek to harm us and hack our democracy,” he noted.
Zuckerberg also faced a lot of questions about what type of business Facebook is exactly, fielding another round of questions from Representative Fred Upton of Michigan about its apparent lack of competitors.
Representative Walden of Oregon took a further step back and asked a broader question: “What exactly is Facebook?” — before noting that Facebook could be described as an advertising platform, a publisher, a telecom company or even as a common carrier, depending on which of its business lines one were looking at. And any of those designations would have real consequences for Facebook. Defined as a telecom, it would fall under the regulatory control of the FCC. Defined as a publisher, it would be regulated by the FCC and also be responsible for the content put forth on its platform, something Facebook strongly does not want.
“I consider us to be a technology company,” Mr. Zuckerberg answered. “The primary thing we do is have engineers that write code and build services for other people. Do we have a responsibility for the content people share on Facebook? I think the answer to that question is yes.”
So will ten hours — and the questions of 100 legislators — be enough to let Facebook continue to define itself as a technology company as opposed to something a little more regulable? It’s hard to say — but then, at this point, it is hard to say what kind of regulations legislators are actually considering.
But ultimately it may not matter, since even Mark Zuckerberg believes that one way or another, Facebook is about to be a more regulated company, probably facing higher requirements to make user privacy a default not a series of choices for users.
How much effect that has will depend very much they on what law they write — and how good a place at the negotiating table Mark Zuckerberg was able to talk himself into over the last 48 hours.