One week ago today, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg appeared willingly before the US Congress to testify about privacy breaches, its failure to stop “foreign interference in government elections” (Zuck’s statement ad nauseam) and various other malefactions. The 10 hours of televised hearings that I watched were the equivalent of the Stanley Cup playoffs to your average hockey fan. They were the most entertaining hearings I’ve ever watched. From tech-challenged senators wanting to understand basic computer literacy to those fed up with the current state of politics, the questions were, at times, thought-provoking, at other times, downright ridiculous.
Some of our nation’s congressional representatives hurled queries at the Facebook CEO, honing in specifically on Facebook’s history of apology statements and their previous slogan of “move fast and break things,” which, according to the CEO himself, has evolved to “move fast with a stable infrastructure,” a much less sexy, but more responsible, internal motto. One such question sought to position Facebook as a monopoly, which Facebook’s leader answered with caution. While there are no other social media platforms exactly like Facebook, there are many platforms to choose from depending on your tastes in content self-distribution.
Senator Kennedy’s questions hinted at possible government use of the data collected on Facebook, such as in the investigation of a crime, or potentially a suspect in a crime stating specifically “can a file be produced?” To which Zuck responded: “in theory yes, but it would be a huge breach.” Other senators wanted to know just how much Facebook “listens” through microphones and webcams, which was of particular curiosity since our government has already been accused of those very same acts, or have we already forgotten why Snowden is hiding out in a non-extradition country?
All of this boils down to the purpose of the investigatory hearings which was to find out if more legislation was needed in this quickly evolving field. Facebook was repeatedly targeted as not making changes quick enough to prevent some of the misdeeds they were accused of. But the question lingers how can you solve a problem until you know that you have one and how does one even have such control in an emerging technological field.
The biggest question that was never directly asked was just how much right to privacy do you have on a public platform, and according to Zuckerburg, Facebook users have always had complete control over the ads they see and the settings for the content they share. This was all brought to government level awareness because of The Guardian story last year about an app called This is Your Digital Life, and its illegal sale of 300K peoples data (and their friends data totalling a staggering 18 million American citizens) to the research firm Cambridge Analytica who was hired by Jared Kushner of Trump’s campaign to take over data operations; and whether or not said data was used to sway voter opinions via Facebook Ad campaigns (and who actually paid for them).
A little history…
Tech companies have been given the freedom to self-regulate up to this point, simply because we did not know enough to put legislation on it. (back to that: you don’t know what you don’t know until you know it). Technology companies are regulated far less than any other industry including medical, automotive, pharmaceutical, food, et al.
So what exactly is public information?
Nearly every website you visit has the “Share to Facebook” button located somewhere…usually on a blog or other point of reference material that a business wants you to share to increase their visibility across the vast digital landscape. For the technologically challenged, when your app asks you to grant permissions to contact lists, etc, then you are, by default sharing someone else’s information with that app. So it is not directly Facebook’s responsibility to police what everyone else does, nor should it be responsible for being the social police for the other businesses that benefit from its existence. Facebook, has not, will not, nor ever has sold your information for profit. When a business runs an ad it asks Facebook to share it with people who they think will benefit from the use of your products or services. As Zuck explains, if you sell skis and you have a set of ads that you want to be run specifically to female cross-country skiers who make more than $65K/yr, the Facebook algorithms then look at data its user base has shared…publicly, and targets those female cross-country skis making more than $65K/yr.
Our representatives argue that users do not have total information awareness as click-through consent is not enough, yet they also claim that terms of service and user agreements are not written in plain enough English for the average citizen to understand. Additionally, Zuck was questioned on the statistics of just how many users have actually read what they were signing, to which he said he cannot calculate, but every single Facebook user has agreed to them and were notified of changes to the policy, regardless of whether or not they read them.
EU’s “Right to be Forgotten”
Previous to this ever-changing Information/Technological Age, private citizens were granted defacto privacy by obscurity. GenX, Y & Z grew up with the adage nothing is ever erased from the internet, a sentiment that is still in its infancy yet should be common sense. In decades past, people were free to make minor mistakes without damaging their reputation, there was no further evidence or digital record, you could burn the photograph or “destroy the evidence.” Now there are internet time machines which capture cached images of websites and are publicly available to anyone with internet access and a computer to log on to.
The EU “Right to be forgotten” is simply legislation across Europe that grants private and public citizens to ask Google to “delist” information, but only if it meets certain criteria: “if deemed inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant or excessive.” Senators want to know if Facebook and other tech industry giants would support similar legislation being enacted in the United States. Zuckerburg repeatedly said he is not against legislation and seeks to work with the representatives of our nation to draft or refine such acts like the Browser Act.
There are already some states that are taking a step ahead of the Federal Government and introducing legislation like the NY State Assembly A05323 which closely mimics the ECJ’s legislation. California also has the “eraser law,” which “seals” juvenile internet records.
The bill’s statement of purpose is this:
To enhance transparency and accountability for online political advertisements by requiring those who purchase and publish such ads to disclose information about the advertisements to the public, and for other purposes.
Facebook (and subsequently Twitter) have both pledged to comply with the proposed bill. Zuckerburg stated that users can currently click on an ad to see why they may have been targeted, but will be working on platform improvements so that one may click on an ad (political or issue related) to see other ads being run by the same advertiser. All political and issue ads will also disclose who paid for it, similar to current regulations for radio, television and print advertising; the bill currently sets the transparency of such information starting at $500 in ad spend. Zuckerburg further promises to verify the identity of all advertisers to the best of his team’s ability.
This area was of particular interest to me as it will create a more competitive marketplace, especially for smaller businesses to see A/B tests that competitors are running.
Suggested: Plain English Controls
What was brought up many times by representatives of both parties was offering a TOS (terms of service) or UA (user agreement) in plain English. What Zuck has pledged his team to work on is a walk-through experience (step-by-step instructions) to allow users to be hand-held through the settings for their shared content and advertising controls. Simply put, regular citizens don’t take the time to read lengthy privacy policies with their associated links, so therefore they need it explained to them like a kindergartner.
Some 1st Amendment Issues
Senator Cruz specifically asked the CEO of Facebook if it was a neutral platform or not? What does Facebook consider “undesirable content,” and would censoring certain materials restrict 1st Amendment Rights? Recently, YouTube has banned channels “promoting the sale or manufacture of firearms and their accessories.” Are we attempting to regulate morality? Will such internal regulations of “undesirable content” be Facebook’s way of quietly putting its thumb on the scales of what is and what is not undesirable. This goes right back to the Jacobellis v Ohio case when Justice Potter Stewart stated “I’ll know it when I see it” when attempting to define the scenes in the movie The Lovers, as being hard-core pornography or not.
The second question regarding Americans 1st Amendment rights is whether we are to define Facebook as a media company or a tech company. Zuckerburg firmly states that Facebook is a tech company because it merely provides the tools for connecting people, it does not produce the content. However, Facebook’s algorithms choose what to put on a users feed, and deletes content that violates its TOS, thereby making “editorial” decisions of what content to publish (making it sound a lot more like a media company). Statistics were provided in the hearings that concluded that 45% of Americans get at least some of their news from social media platforms. Does that quantify Facebook as a media company? Not really. Again, Facebook does not produce any of the content (save for their own pages) that is readily shared across our individual feeds, firmly planting itself in the tech category.
A lot of this content review is done via automated tools and some form of artificial intelligence, to manually sort through the millions of pieces of content that is uploaded or shared every minute of every day by humans would be an exercise in futility. Zuckerburg repeatedly mentioned further research to be conducted in the emerging field of AI as well as pledging to create a staff of 20K human content reviews to double check the findings of the automation tools.
*Sidenote: Scenes of Bicentennial Man keep running through my head here.
Do I have the right to sell my own data?
We are entering a new era, that of the Influencer Economy, where a person can be paid to speak their mind about a particular cause, or product, or industry, should they have enough “internet clout” to entice their followers to purchase said products or buy into certain ideas or causes. Why can’t I, as Joe Nobody, profit from the sharing of my own data?
Zuckerburgs main promises were to hire more human content reviewers to purge the Facebook platform of fake accounts, “zombie” pages, fake news and undesirable content as well as reviewing developer apps to make sure they are complying with FB’s TOS. Zuck also pledges to lend his assistance with the development of legislation regarding emerging technologies and user-generated content media specifically. Additionally, Facebook will be working on giving users a walk-through experience to control their sharing and ad settings, to which I say: how plainly do we need to be told that the coffee is hot?