Apologetic Zuckerberg Faces Skeptical Senators
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Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Apologetic Zuckerberg Faces Skeptical Senators

A polished, polite, and apologetic Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, Inc., today faced skeptical questions during an unusual joint hearing of two Senate committees that wanted to hear how the social media giant would improve its approach to data privacy, fake news, and election interference.

With more than 40 senators and their staffs from the committees on Judiciary and Commerce, Science, and Transportation crammed into a Hart Senate Office Building hearing room, Mr. Zuckerberg again apologized for his company’s failure to prevent a political research firm from misusing data from an estimated 87 million Facebook users.

“Facebook is an idealistic and optimistic company,” he said. “For most of our existence, we focused on all the good that connecting people can bring. As Facebook has grown, people everywhere have gotten a powerful new tool to stay connected to the people they love, make their voices heard, and build communities and businesses.”

“But it’s clear now that we didn’t do enough to prevent these tools from being used for harm as well. That goes for fake news, foreign interference in elections, and hate speech, as well as developers and data privacy. We didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibility, and that was a big mistake. It was my mistake, and I’m sorry. I started Facebook, I run it, and I’m responsible for what happens there,” he said.

Sen. John Thune (R., S.D.), chairman of the Commerce Committee, noted that Facebook had apologized several times in the past for mistakes in running its social media business. “How is today’s apology different?” he asked.

Other senators observed that Facebook had mishandled user data before and was under a 2011 Federal Trade Commission consent order that required it to strengthen its privacy policies. “It’s not the first time that Facebook has misused its users’ information,” said Sen. Bill Nelson (D., Fla.), ranking member of the Commerce Committee.

“I think you’re genuine,” said Sen. Nelson, one of several senators who met with Mr. Zuckerberg yesterday in advance of the hearing. “You want to do the right thing. You want to enact reforms. We want to know if it’s going to be enough.”

Today’s hearing, and another planned for tomorrow before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, was spurred by the recent revelation that Cambridge Analytica, a data analytics firm used by the Trump presidential campaign and other political entities, had been allowed to use Facebook’s platform to offer users an app that harvested information without notification from millions of Facebook users.

Mr. Zuckerberg outlined several steps that he said Facebook was taking in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica episode. The company is reducing the amount of personal information apps can obtain, giving users more information about their apps, and auditing apps that were available on Facebook prior to 2014, when it changed its policies on apps, he said.

It is using new artificial intelligence tools to detect fake accounts, such as those suspected of being used by Russian government operatives to conduct influence operations during the 2016 presidential campaign, and has purged “tens of thousands” of suspicious accounts, Mr. Zuckerberg told the committees.

“One of my greatest regrets in running the company is that we were slow in identifying the Russian influence operations in 2016,” Mr. Zuckerberg said. “This is one of my top priorities in 2018 -- to get this right.”

“There are people in Russia whose job it is to try to exploit our systems,” he added. “This is an arms race. They’re going to keep getting better at this. We need to invest in getting better at this, too.”

Mr. Zuckerberg already has endorsed the principles behind the Honest Ads Act, which would aim to restrict the ability of foreign operatives to buy online advertising to influence U.S. elections (TR Daily, April 6). That bill was introduced late last year by Sens. John McCain (R., Ariz.), Mark Warner (D., Va.), and Amy Klobuchar (D., Minn.).

In addition to the Honest Ads Act, Mr. Zuckerberg indicated he was open to additional regulation of Facebook and similar firms in the areas of privacy and hate speech. Requiring companies to disclose breaches or the misuse of personal data within 72 hours of the discovery of a breach would be reasonable, he said.

But he also pushed back on some proposals floated at today’s hearing, including rules requiring better privacy disclosures. Asked why Facebook’s privacy disclosure didn’t offer a comprehensive description of the many ways data could be misused, he said, “Long privacy policies are very confusing.”

“One of the things we’ve struggled with over time is to make it [Facebook’s privacy disclosure] as simple as possible so that people can understand it,” he said, because most people won’t read a “full legal document.”

He also defended the way Facebook enabled advertisers to use information posted or viewed by users to provide targeted ads. He admitted that the practice could cause “discomfort” but said people preferred to see ads that were relevant to them. Although users can choose to opt out of ad targeting, he said, they will still see ads because Facebook does not charge users and is supported by advertisers.

In the midst of the volley of skeptical questions lobbed at Mr. Zuckerberg today, he found an ally in Sen. Orrin Hatch (R., Utah), who noted that consumers should not be surprised when a free service like Facebook makes money through the use of personal information.

Sen. Hatch expressed doubts about proposals designed to make Facebook more secure for users. “Whenever a controversy like this arises,” he said, “there’s always a danger that Congress’s response will be to step in and over-regulate.” -- Tom Leithauser, tom.leithauser@wolterskluwer.com

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