By Caroline Ristaino, Public Citizen
The publicized scandals at Facebook involving Russian ads meant to interfere with the 2016 election and the obtainment of user data by Cambridge Analytica have left many Americans wondering whether the ability to share pictures and life updates with their friends was really worth the price of unfair elections and security breaches. Going into Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony in front of House and Senate committees, we had hoped that the Facebook CEO would commit to supporting regulation and transparency for his site.
In terms of a commitment to passing legislation, there is reason to be hopeful, at least with regards to the attitudes of members of the House and Senate. Multiple different proposed bills were brought up during the hearings including:
- The Honest Ads Act – This bipartisan bill proposed by Senator Mark Warner aims at applying the same rules to internet ads that already apply to ads on television, radio, and satellite.
- The CONSENT Act – Senators Edward Markey and Richard Blumenthal aim their bill at “affirmative informed consent,” also focusing on the inclusion of an opt-in feature to give users the choice to share their data.
Support for regulation that crosses partisan lines is heartening, but it remains unlikely that the Zuckerberg hearings will act as a catalyst to get such legislation passed quickly. And, Zuckerberg himself seemed reluctant to pledge his support to any specific legislation. Apart from the Honest Ads Act, for which Zuckerberg affirmed his support in his published testimony, the CEO often repeated that he supported the “principles” involved in proposed legislation, but was reluctant to commit to any “details.” With it being unlikely that legislation will be passed soon, it is worrying that Zuckerberg did not show an eagerness to implement the proposed regulations at his company without the legal motivation to do so. He has committed to changes being made at Facebook, but his follow through remains doubtful.
At the end of the day, Zuckerberg is running a company at Facebook. He affirmed this many times throughout the hearing, referring to Facebook as a “technology company” in response to questions of whether Facebook had veered into the domain of media. Whatever way the company is characterized, however, the fact remains that its responsibility to protect its customers should be a larger concern than its profit margin.
In his testimony, Zuckerberg made sure to point out that Facebook’s increased investment in security would “impact our profitability going forward.” He also repeated many times throughout the hearing that they were working to expand their security team during the course of the year. These words come across as a forced effort on Zuckerberg’s part to show the public that he was willing to take a hit to profits and to spend money on increased security. Yet it seems unlikely that profitability will ever truly be secondary at such a large and rich company. Case in point: after the public spectacle of Tuesday’s trial, Facebook’s stock rose to finish the day at 4.5%.
In terms of economics, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is in a unique position of being able to hold Facebook accountable. The FTC is already investigating whether or not Facebook’s data collection and the Cambridge Analytica event are in violation of their consent decree. If it is found that Facebook did violate the decree, former FTC officials have predicted that Facebook could be looking at fines of upwards of $1 billion. If the FTC follows through on its investigation and penalty, perhaps the economic hit could act as the motivation for Zuckerberg to take privacy seriously and double down on his recent commitments.
Meanwhile, as Zuckerberg faced his interrogation, President Trump turned his attention to the conflict in Syria and stated that the relationship between the U.S. and Russia is “worse now than it has ever been.” Trump’s ever-escalating rhetoric does not inspire confidence that Russian interference with U.S. elections is a thing of the past, yet Russia largely took a back seat to more general privacy concerns during the Zuckerberg hearings. Apart from a thorough questioning by Senator Dianne Feinstein, most of the Senators and Representatives seemed content to take Zuckerberg at his word that steps had been taken to prevent Russian political ads from reaching viewers.
Outside of the House and Senate, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) voted unanimously to move forward with new rules that would require online ads to identify their sponsors. Unfortunately, the FEC only has authority over advertisements that are aimed specifically at getting people to vote for or against a certain candidate, meaning that the Russian ads during the 2016 elections that targeted social issues, rather than candidates, would not fall under the FEC’s jurisdiction. It seems Zuckerberg’s own commitments are once again the best chance for avoiding a repeat of this incident and so, once again, our hope rests in Zuckerberg’s ability to follow through.
With the hearings having concluded, we are left in much the same position as we were when they began. The hearings were largely treated as public spectacle, with some coverage focused solely on Zuckerberg’s attire or the technological illiteracy of older Senators. The public was left with little more knowledge of whether Zuckerberg will follow through on his commitments to transparency and privacy. While we must continue to push for regulatory legislation, we are also still forced to put our faith in the fact that Zuckerberg will put protection before profit and stand up for Facebook’s users.