The Takeaways from Mark Zuckerberg’s Congressional Testimony That Actually Matter

April 16, 2018 - 8 minutes read

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The past few weeks have been dominated by headlines about privacy scandals surrounding Facebook. These troubles culminated in founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifying before Congress last week in two separate hearings. It’s easy to assume that this Washington visit would be the final push to throw the social media giant into a tumultuous tailspin.

But this was not the case. Instead, the hearings have seemingly helped Facebook rebound from its recent problems. They also helped to enlighten us on the current relationship between tech and politics. It’s a relationship in which our personal information is caught in between, and unfortunately, one that uses our data as either currency or collateral.

Mr. Zuckerberg Goes to Washington

Last Tuesday, Zuckerberg testified before both the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee. The next day, he testified before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The congressional hearings lasted almost ten hours altogether.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which the data of 87 million Facebook users was harvested for President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, warranted a visit to Washington from Zuckerberg. It was an opportunity to not only save face about this particular situation but clear the air about general data and privacy concerns.

No Clue About Big Blue

Many people believed that the Cambridge Analytica scandal and these hearings spelled the end for Facebook, including some of the company’s own employees. But as soon as the hearings began, the vibe at the tech company’s headquarters began to shift to a more optimistic outlook. As one Facebook executive put it, “I was personally surprised by how ill-prepared the members were. Once it was clear how bad it was and how mismatched they were, everybody had this awakening: ‘We have made some mistakes, but these guys know even less.'”

The hearings were marred by the fact that many of the senators in attendance didn’t know much about Facebook at all. Still, the meetings between Zuckerberg and the senators proved to be fruitful, but not in the way you’d guess. The hearings may have been a result of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, but they didn’t just center around this situation specifically. Instead, the participants in this hearing chose to expand the horizon to other questions, like if Facebook sells user data, how it tracks people, current privacy protections in place, and future plans to improve this.

A Tough Crowd

Per a 2011 consent decree with the Federal Trade Commission, Facebook must identify and address any threats to user privacy on its platform. With recent missteps and controversies in mind, many representatives believe that the San Francisco social media developer violated this agreement. But Zuckerberg says that Facebook has been steadfast in upholding the decree.

Another hot topic that the senators repeatedly pressed Zuckerberg about was how exactly Facebook collects data from people. Does it store data about which websites people frequent, whether they’re logged into Facebook or not? Does the company create “shadow profiles,” accounts for people who don’t really have accounts?

Zuckerberg handled this subject pragmatically by breaking it down in terms of security and ad targeting. “Even if someone isn’t logged in, we track certain information, like how many pages they’re accessing, as a security measure,” he explained. If the platform didn’t do this, it would not be able to stop someone from downloading all public Facebook pages. As for ad targeting: “We may also collect information to make it so that those ads are more relevant and work better on those websites,” he said, adding that “users can opt out of ad targeting.”

Zuckerberg also negated the possibility of shadow profiles by saying that he wasn’t familiar with any such aspect existing. He did, however, mention that his own data was among those stolen in the Cambridge Analytica harvest. Zuckerberg also announced that Facebook would abide by Europe’s General Data Privacy Regulation (GDPR) by rolling out compliant protections globally.

“The GDPR has a bunch of different important pieces,” Zuckerberg explained in his endorsement of the policy, which goes into effect in May. “One is offering controls over — that we’re doing. The second is around pushing for affirmative consent and putting a control in front of people that walks people through their choices. We’re going to do that, too. … We’re going to put a tool at the top of people’s apps that walks them through their setting.”

The Silver Lining for Facebook

Aside from easy comedic shots and internet memes poking fun at the idea that Zuckerberg may be an android or alien, the hearings were actually a win for Facebook. During the hearings, the company’s value actually rose by $17 billion, and Zuckerberg recouped $2.5 billion in net worth.

For such a pressurized situation, Zuckerberg actually performed very well. For the most part, he was competent and confident in the discussions, and he didn’t make any incredible falters that would give the lawmakers something to jump on. For the time being, it seems the Facebook has deflected recent controversies, but in doing so, it has brought an intense amount of attention to privacy and data, which could be bad for other tech giants like Google and Twitter.

Both of those companies are also ad-based and may have even more information about users than Facebook does. “A lot of the concerns raised in the hearings this week were around privacy,” says Senator Mark Warner from Virginia. “Obviously that is a huge issue and one that not only Facebook needs to address, but Twitter needs to address, in a sense Google and YouTube as a single entity need to address.”

Facebook may have won this battle, but this open dialogue on data and privacy is just beginning. And its effects could change the landscape, not just for how techies or app developers work, but for how we use the Internet and socialize.

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