Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, sitting alone at a small table, weathered hours of questioning Tuesday at a Senate committee hearing where lawmakers accused his company of everything from deceiving users and hosting hate speech to political “censorship.”
Zuckerberg, sipping water, responded calmly as 44 senators peppered him with questions about political data firm Cambridge Analytica’s arguably unauthorized acquisition of as many as 87 million Facebook user profiles to help it refine its election-ad targeting. Allowed only five minutes each, the senators also raised a host of other concerns.
Among the exchanges that stood out:
Although Zuckerberg outlined policy changes Facebook is making in an attempt to better protect data privacy for its users, he openly affirmed, under friendly questioning from Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), that the company’s business model depends on mining user data to help advertisers reach their desired audiences.
Hatch mocked users for being “shocked, shocked,” that their data was put to this purpose, and asked Zuckerberg, “How do you run a company if people don’t pay for your service?”
“We sell ads,” Zuckerberg replied, smiling.
But did Zuckerberg also hint that Facebook might someday offer a more enhanced, private version of the social media network?
When Sen. Bill Nelson, (D-FL) asked about the possibility that users could pay for protection from ads—citing a comment to that effect by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg—Zuckerberg elaborated:
“What Sheryl was getting at is that in order not to run ads at all we would have to have some other business model,” Zuckerberg said. That may have been meant to confirm a commitment to Facebook’s current practices. But could it signal that the company is considering a “freemium” model, with ads on the free version and ad-free service for those who pay?
“We don’t offer an option now not to get ads,” he told Nelson. (Note the “now” in the sentence.)
In his exchange with Hatch, Zuckerberg said, “There will always be a version of Facebook that is free.”
Neutral platform or responsible content curator?
Facebook is under fire not only for allowing user data to fall into the hands of Cambridge Analytica, but also for failing to detect and stop fake accounts traced to Russia from spreading false and divisive messages during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) asked Zuckerberg whether he holds with the argument that social media companies and other apps that host user-generated messages are just neutral platforms with no responsibility for the content.
Zuckerberg said Facebook formerly saw itself as merely providing tools that people can use to connect with each other, but is now committed to “making sure those tools are used for good.” The company is hiring thousands of content reviewers and using artificial intelligence to root out objectionable content such as terrorist threats, he said.
“I agree that we’re responsible for the content,” Zuckerberg said. That statement by a CEO could have legal, as well as practical consequences. Currently, tech companies are immune from certain legal liabilities based on third-party content, under the Communications Decency Act’s section 230, a key protection that fostered the growth of social media networks. But that liability shield has come under a partial challenge recently, notably by legislation recently passed in Congress that requires tech companies to prevent sex-trafficking on their sites.
Facing pressure on the other side of that issue, Zuckerberg was blasted by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) because Facebook did exercise control over its content—but in ways Cruz said discriminated against conservatives whose accounts were suspended, such as Catholic organizations and political commentators on the right.
“To a great many Americans, that appears to be a pattern of political bias,” Cruz charged.
The new FTC investigation and the Mueller probe
While Zuckerberg’s testimony before Congress Tuesday and Wednesday is doubtless an unwelcome ordeal, Facebook’s troubles may just be beginning. It faces a revived probe by the Federal Trade Commission, which had lodged a sweeping complaint in 2011 accusing Facebook of deceiving users with confusing privacy settings that concealed avenues by which their data could be shared. That case was settled by a consent decree that required Facebook to make clear its privacy policies, anticipate new privacy vulnerabilities that might arise, and remedy them. If the FTC finds Facebook in violation of that decree, due to the loss of user profiles to Cambridge Analytica or for other reasons, the agency could impose substantial penalties.
At the Senate hearing, Zuckerberg said Facebook had not notified the FTC when it learned in 2015 that Cambridge Analytica had obtained millions of Facebook profiles from researcher Aleksandr Kogan, nor did it tell the affected users. Instead, Facebook demanded that Kogan and Cambridge Analytica certify that they had deleted the data.
“We considered it a closed case,” Zuckerberg said. Facebook later learned that the data was still in use. Facebook didn’t ban Cambridge Analytica from its platform, where it was an advertiser in late 2015, Zuckerberg said.
Beyond that, Facebook has been inexorably drawn into Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. Cambridge Analytica allegedly used Facebook’s data to refine its method of creating psychological profiles of individuals to identify groups that would be receptive to certain political ads. The firm, which worked with the Trump campaign, allegedly bought the millions of Facebook profiles from Kogan, who has received Russian government grants to study social media, and served a stint as an academic at a university in St. Petersburg.
Facebook worked with the Trump campaign in its role as an advertiser, Zuckerberg said. To his knowledge, he said, the company did not work with Cambridge Analytica.
In response to questions from Sen, Patrick Leahy (D-VT) Zuckerberg said Facebook is working with Mueller, though he said he hasn’t been interviewed. He said Facebook is still finding and closing accounts operated by the Internet Research Agency, an entity linked to the Russian government that spread false and divisive messages through the platform during the 2016 campaign, and that has been indicted as a result of the Mueller probe.
Senate members said Tuesday they plan to hold a separate hearing to interrogate leaders of Cambridge Analytica.
As the scrutiny of Cambridge Analytica continues, facts may emerge that affect the FTC investigation, or change the view of Facebook’s role in the 2016 campaign.
Facebook maintains that Cambridge Analytica was able to get its user data because Kogan violated the terms of his agreement to use the social media platform for research purposes only, and not to share the data.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) said at the hearing that Kogan provided Facebook his own terms of service that gave him much more leeway. “Facebook was on notice that he could sell the data,” Blumenthal said to Zuckerberg. “Doesn’t this conflict with the FTC order?”
Zuckerberg said he hadn’t seen the Kogan document. “Our app review team was responsible for that,” he said. “It certainly appears we should have been aware this developer submitted a term in violation of [our policy].”
Several senators inquired about possible coordination between Cambridge Analytica and the Internet Research Agency over the targeting of political or election-related ads.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) asked Zuckerberg if he knew how many of the Facebook profiles obtained by Cambridge Analytica belonged to people in the key U.S. swing states that influenced the outcome of the 2016 election, and how many of the 126 million people found to have been exposed to messages from the Internet Research Agency were among those whose profiles were shared with Cambridge Analytica.
“We’re looking at that,” Zuckerberg said. “It’s entirely possible there will be a connection there.”