15 April, 2018, 12:00 am
Opinion – I sat through both of Mark Zuckerberg’s appearances on Capitol Hill, watching them live streamed, ironically enough, on Facebook. Here’s what I learned about the 33-year-old billionaire, and the social network’s greatest crisis yet.
1. Zuckerberg is still a frat boy at heart
Behind the crafted contrition and well-rehearsed responses, we got glimpses of a guy not far removed from the dorm room where Facebook was born back in 2004. His numerous mentions of the dorm suggest he yearns for those heady start-up days, when he could “move fast and break self-assurance. But our data so that advertisers can micro-target us is a small price to pay. He needs to grow up some more.
2. The left and right are gunning for Facebook
The bipartisan criticism of Zuckerberg and Facebook’s lax data policies was remarkable and suggests he won’t be given the opportunity to self-regulate his empire for much longer. Even the Zuck acknowledged that regulation governing how our data is used on social networks is inevitable. Several of the senators involved in his interrogation referred to bills they are drafting that would touch on this and other aspects of Facebook’s business. President Donald Trump meanwhile has maintained Twitter silence on the hearings, a telling sign in itself, given Cambridge Analytica’s ties to his 2016 presidential campaign.
3. The Europeans could save us
There was much talk the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which is a powerful law taking effect across the 28 EU nations from 25 May and aimed at reclaiming data protection rights for EU citizens. The fallout from the Cambridge Analytica scandal culminating in Zuckerberg’s appearance before Congress is perfectly timed to highlight the wisdom of the EU’s approach, which allows for things like mandatory data breach notifications, data portability between online services and the right to have all of your data deleted by a data host.
4. Congress is
ill-equipped to deal with this
The average age of senators questioning Zuckerberg was probably around 65, but that doesn’t excuse the lack of understanding of how Facebook operates, displayed in the many naive questions put to him. There was incredulity expressed at the business model Zuckerberg operates, as if analysing our data for commercial gain was a sinister new thing. These lawmakers need to get up to speed before they start drafting legislation aiming at tackling a problem they don’t really understand.
5. Zuck likes his privacy
Despite claiming back in 2010 when Facebook had a mere 350 million users that privacy was no longer a ‘social norm’, it was clear from the yesterday’s hearing that Zuckerberg values his privacy. “Would you be comfortable sharing with us the name of the hotel you stayed in last night?” Illinois senator Dick Durbin asked him. “Um, uh, no,” Zuckerberg answered. Fair enough, who wants protesters picketing your five star lodgings? But Durbin persisted: “If you’ve messaged anybody this week would you share with us the names of the people you’ve messaged?” Again Zuckerberg demurred. So why wouldn’t we?
6. Facebook is effectively a monopoly
Republican senator Lindsey Graham made a great point when he asked Zuckerberg: “If I’m upset with Facebook, what’s the equivalent product that I can go sign up for?” Zuckerberg’s answer was a rare stumble that revealed just how dominant Facebook really is. There is no Chevy alternative to Ford in the Facebook world, to use Graham’s analogy. As Zuckerberg attempted to try and outline the categories of competitors he has — Facebook competes with Youtube in online video, and Snapchat for messaging — he quickly got bogged down in the reality of his situation. No other platform bundles together social networking services the way Facebook does. But does Zuck consider his creation a monopoly? He told the committee: “It certainly doesn’t feel like that to me.”
7. AI won’t stop hate speech and election interference.
Zuckerberg mentioned several times that artificial intelligence tools would be required to more effectively weed out fake accounts seeding fake news stories and bogus Facebook pages, or prevent hate speech from going viral. In the same breath as talking about technology’s role in moving from reactive to proactive policing of the platform, he told senators that by the end of the year, Facebook will have 20,000 people employed across the country tasked with content vetting and security. This is a human problem and legions of humans will be required to fix it.
8. Facebook to stay for free
Zuckerberg made it clear that Facebook’s current business model of generating advertising from the platform isn’t going to change. He told the senators: “We think offering people an ad-supported service is the most aligned with our mission of trying to connect everyone in the world, because we want to offer a free service that everyone can afford. That’s the only way we can reach billions of people.” With Facebook making $4.3 billion profit in the last three months of 2017 alone, why would he change a thing?
9. Election manipulation is Facebook’s big threat
One of Zuckerberg’s main talking points was to make clear that in 2018 he wants to make sure Facebook isn’t used to manipulate elections in places like Pakistan, Brazil and at home in the US where midterm elections are coming up. That goes to the heart of the Cambridge Analytica scandal and is ultimately what has chiefly raised the ire of US politicians, who know how misinformation campaigns can help tip a knife-edge election one way or another.
10. Zuckerberg dodged
some big questions
So many questions remain. Zuckerberg avoided disaster on his trip to Washington D.C. but the hard work begins living up to the promises he has made.