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Facebook Privacy Hearing: Was Zuckerberg Grilled Enough?

Mark Zuckerberg has been held to account by the US Senate this week in a hearing that has been screened live across the world. Zuckerberg is being held wholly responsible for 2.2 billion active users on his social media platform, Facebook.

The hearing consisted of a series of senators, with an average age of 62, who questioned Zuckerberg one by one on issues relating to data privacy on Facebook.


Why is there a hearing?

This hearing was drawn up following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which saw the violation of vast amounts of data. Cambridge Analytica, a political campaign company, bought data pertaining to 50 million US voters, which was collected through personality tests and sold to the private company by an individual ad developer on Facebook’s platform. Advertisers using Facebook’s platform feed the company a booming $40 billion of their overall annual turnover, profiting purely from the data they collate on individual Facebook users.

Cambridge Analytica are now banned from Facebook. They joined the platform as an advertiser themselves in 2015, which led Zuckerberg to apologise for not banning them sooner. He told the Senate that it is extremely difficult to track data once it leaves their platform. GDPR (Data Protection) laws in May will change this attitude in Europe, because it requires companies to be culpable for all the data that sits on their platform, even after it leaves their hands. The US are yet to see a similar law in place in their own country, allowing Facebook to bide their time in how they approach this recent breach.

Alexander Nix, former CEO of Cambridge Analytica (Source: The Times)


The hearing

In the hearing this week, Zuckerberg underwent several long hours of questioning on how Facebook collects, stores and uses their users’ data. Both sides, the Senate and Zuckerberg, seemed to have their momentary victories.

Senators threw countless hypotheticals at Zuckerberg, with very few statistics or relevant use cases. Many times Zuckerberg had to pause momentarily, confused at the question he was being asked:

Senator: “If I’m emailing within Whatsapp, does that ever inform your advertisers?”

Zuckerberg: “No, we don’t see any of the content in Whatsapp, it’s fully encrypted.”

Senator: “Right. But is there some algorithm that spits out some information to you ad platform, and then, lets say I’m emailing about Black Panther within Whatsapp, do I get a Black Panther banner ad?”

Zuckerberg: “Senator, we don’t…” *pauses* “Facebook systems do not see the content of messages being transferred over Whatsapp.”

Senator: “Yeah I know, but that’s not what I’m asking, I’m asking about whether these systems talk to each other without a human being touching it.”

Zuckerberg: *confused* “Senator, I think the answer to your specific question is if you message someone about Black Panther in Whatsapp, it would not inform any ads.”

It seemed that some senators were simply getting carried away, getting excited over words such as “algorithm” and repeatedly confusing direct message with email. Many of them did not seem to know what they were talking about.


An internet favourite was the question asked by Senator Orrin Hatch:

Hatch: “How do you sustain a business model in which users don’t pay for your service?”

Zuckerberg: “Senator, we have ads.”



But not all the questions from the Senate were so lacking in directness and technical awareness. In reference to the many other scandals Facebook has caught itself in over the years, one senator asked simply: “Why is today different?”. Zuckerberg danced around this question, concluding that it is down to a case of company philosophy, and committing to future results, whatever they may be. To the world, and to the Senate, this sounded like another empty promise, characteristic of Zuckerberg’s laid back style. His response came across as insincere and distrustful, because it had no actionable change behind its words.

Another interaction, highlighted by most major news sites as a small triumph for the Senate, was the probing line of questioning conducted by Illinois’ Dick Durbin, which practically rendered Zuckerberg speechless:

Durbin: “Mr Zuckerberg, would you be comfortable sharing the name of the hotel you stayed in last night?”

Zuckerberg: “Errm…” *laughs* “Errrr” *audience laugh* “No”

Durbin: “…I think that this may be what it’s all about: your right to privacy, the limits to your right to privacy, and how much you give away.”



In the second hearing on Wednesday, Zuckerberg told the House energy and commerce committee that he will not change Facebook’s default settings so that it does not automatically sign the user up to vast amounts of personal data collection. Zuckerberg refuses to make us any the wiser, which puts the emphasis solely on the consumer.


What can we do now?

As Senator Schatz dismayed in the hearing, “people have no earthly idea of what they’re signing up for”.

Zuckerberg hit back to those allegations, contesting: “I think that the control is much more granular than that.” The Facebook founder made the point repeatedly that we have a choice. We have a choice to avoid ads. We have a choice to turn off countless settings which build up certain data about us, known otherwise as the ‘third-party information’ switch.

We do have a choice, theoretically, but it’s a choice that has been muddied with ignorance and complacency. Facebook is now a rite of passage, not simply a product you may or may not walk past on a shelf. So in the free market we live in today, it seems almost impossible that these huge technology companies could be fully regulated. Currently, it falls on us, as individuals, to understand this new, digital age we live in.

Advances in technology have led to what many analysts have dubbed ‘surveillance capitalism’. That is, the one-way surveillance of the consumer, where marketing campaigns can use personal profiling and micro-targeting to sell to the individual, rather than to a generic social group. Arguably, this sort of advertising resculpts our society, turning our everyday behaviour into an opportunity for profit. That is the reason why we should care about our data, and why we need more active and progressive education on just how these applications, which we use by the minute, process our data.

Ruby Hinchliffe
Ruby is a Classics Graduate from Bristol. She has a particular interest in political affairs, art history and cultural debates. Currently, Ruby works as a Sales Development Rep at WP Engine, and writes as a Journalist for TCS.

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