Tuesday, 10 April 2018

It’s easy to poke fun at Zuckerberg as a hoodie-wearing kid. His robotic demeanor makes him appear expressionless, even when he’s sorry. A skit on “Saturday Night Live” leaned heavily on those qualities. Washington lawmakers may be fond of grandstanding, especially when they get the chance to grill a hapless executive.

When U.S. congressional members interview Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg on Tuesday and Wednesday, the temptation will be to score points by focusing on his all-too-apparent flaws. Senators and representatives, though, have an opportunity to chase weightier topics, like how Facebook uses and protects the data of its 2 billion-strong community. The $450 billion firm has tended to respond in squirrelly dribs and drabs to such controversies.

One big question is how Facebook got caught short – twice over – in its treatment of Russian attempts to influence U.S. voters and the unauthorized handing of user data to consultancy Cambridge Analytica. Zuckerberg said the idea Russian agents had placed fake ads on Facebook was “crazy,” only to admit later that some 126 million Americans had been exposed. As for the Cambridge Analytica scandal, it took approximately three years for Facebook to learn that its requests for relevant data to be deleted may not have been obeyed, affecting about 87 million people.

In his prepared testimony, Zuckerberg acknowledges the company didn’t do enough, citing “a responsibility to not just build tools, but to make sure those tools are used for good.” What matters, though, is why it didn’t do enough. It could be that Facebook really was just too trusting. It could be that it didn’t really pay the issue much thought. Or it might be that the company’s processes and systems simply couldn’t keep up with its vast troves of complex data.

That last one might be the most troubling – because it would suggest regulation is necessary. As founder, chairman and boss, Zuckerberg controls more than half of the company’s vote, entrenching his power. But European watchdogs, set to enact privacy data rules in May that give consumers the right to know what information a company stores about them, have decided the product is bigger than the founder. The question now is whether U.S. lawmakers come to the same conclusion.

Senator Bill Nelson, the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee, said on Monday that while he believed new regulation was needed in the face of Facebook’s twin scandals, he did not expect anything substantive to happen.

He attributed that in part to the format for Tuesday’s joint hearing before the Senate’s Commerce and Judiciary committees that will give Zuckerberg an advantage, saying it would favor spectacle over thoughtful dialogue.

“How in the world can you have 44 senators do a hearing that has a lot of substance when each senator only has four minutes?” Nelson asked reporters on Monday.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, told reporters after speaking with 33-year-old Zuckerberg, that he “was a very nice young man” who “obviously knows what he’s doing and has a very pleasant personality.”

White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders declined to say on Monday if new regulations were needed. “I don’t have a specific policy announcement on that front, but I think we’re all looking forward to that testimony.”

“I don’t want to hurt Facebook. I don’t want to regulate them half to death,” said Republican Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana, a member of the Judiciary Committee “But we have a problem. Our promised digital utopia has minefields in it.”
Facebook spent $1.35 million on lobbying in 2011 and six years later spent $11.5 million, according to data maintained by the Center for Responsive Politics.

“People have this idea that we are going to pass omnibus privacy legislation and it is going to be a silver bullet,” said Alvaro Bedoya, a former congressional aide who worked on privacy issues for former Senator Al Franken. “The reality is lobbyists outnumber consumer privacy advocates in Washington 20 to 1 or 30 to 1.”

Instead of major regulatory changes, lawmakers in Congress have offered narrowly focused legislation.

The Honest Ads Act, for instance, aims to address concerns about foreign nationals covertly purchasing ads on social media to influence American politics. It would require political ads on the internet to reveal who paid for them, much the same as ads on television and radio. It legislation has been stalled since its introduction last October, although Facebook endorsed it on Friday.

Congress did pass legislation last month that chipped away at the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which for decades has guarded internet-based companies from liability for what users post on their platforms.

The legislation, which is expected to be signed into law this week by U.S. President Donald Trump, was aimed at penalizing operators of websites that facilitate online sex trafficking. Internet companies have expressed worry that it could be the first step toward dismantling decades of a hands-off regulatory approach by Washington.

Technology industry officials said they also expected Zuckerberg’s testimony to be long on political point scoring and short on legislative ideas.

“They don’t understand ad targeting and they will probably ask him a bunch of unrelated questions that play to their respective political bases,” said one technology industry source, who spoke on condition on anonymity because his company had not authorized him to speak on the matter for the record.

“So Democrats will ask about monopolies and Republicans will ask about anti-conservative bias in Silicon Valley.”

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