House Members Ask Zuckerberg About Content Review, Data Collection
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Wednesday, April 11, 2018

House Members Ask Zuckerberg About Content Review, Data Collection

For the second day in a row, Facebook, Inc., Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg apologized for, defended, and explained his company’s data collection and content review practices for nearly five hours, as members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee took him to task for what they saw as over-collection of data, inadequate protection of data from third parties, liberal bias in removing content, and failure to shut down illegal opioid sales.

In his prepared statement today, Mr. Zuckerberg repeated the apologies he made yesterday before a joint hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee (TR Daily, April 10), along with explanations of steps the company is taking in the wake of 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.

Among those steps are limiting the information apps can access, ending apps’ access to a user’s data if the user hasn’t used the app in three months, and reviewing apps that had access to significant amounts of user data before the platform was “locked down” in 2014.

In his opening statement, Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden (R., Ore.) said that in addition to learning more about the Cambridge Analytica breach, the committee is interested in “larger questions about the fundamental relationship between tech companies and their users.”

“The American people are concerned about how Facebook protects and profits from its users’ data. In short, does Facebook keep its end of the agreement with its users? How should we, as policy makers, evaluate and respond to these events? Does Congress need to clarify whether or not consumers own or have any real power over their online data? Have edge providers grown to the point that they need federal supervision?” Chairman Walden asked.

“If a company fails to keep its promises about how personal data are being used, that breach of trust must have consequences,” he added.

However, he asked Mr. Zuckerberg for “any suggestions you have for ways policymakers can help reassure our constituents that data they believe was only shared with friends or certain groups, remains private to those circles.”

In his opening statement, committee ranking minority member Frank Pallone Jr. (D., N.J.) said that “Facebook made it too easy for a single person, [Cambridge University researcher] Aleksandr Kogan, … to get a hold of the data of 87 million people.”

Rep. Pallone said that the incident shows that Republicans were wrong last year when they used a Congressional Review Act resolution to annul the FCC’s broadband privacy order, arguing that Federal Trade Commission oversight of privacy in the Internet space was “enough.”

“We need comprehensive privacy and data legislation,” Rep. Pallone said. He cited legislation he introduced last year with Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D., Ill.) “to require baseline security standards.”

“If all we do is have a hearing and then nothing happens, we haven’t accomplished anything,” he added.

During the question period, each lawmaker was limited to four minutes, one minute less than the typical allotment, in light of the broad turnout of committee members.

Chairman Walden noted that Facebook has created video content, carries Major League Baseball games, and has services that enable cash transfers and payments. He asked whether Mr. Zuckerberg considers Facebook a media company or a financial institution.

“I consider us a technology company,” Mr. Zuckerberg said.

Chairman Walden also said that although he understands that Facebook doesn’t “sell data in the traditional sense,” its data on users “is probably the most valuable thing about Facebook.”

Mr. Zuckerberg emphasized that the company does not sell data. “That’s not how advertising works,” he said. He also emphasized, as he would repeatedly throughout the hearing, that every time a user decides to post or share anything, he or she is given the opportunity to choose who to share it with.

Chairman Walden, noting that he was out of time, asked but did not allow Mr. Zuckerberg to answer whether Facebook can manage the data privacy issue or whether Congress needs to ask. He also said he wanted to “flag an issue raised by the Vietnam Veterans of America about fake pages.”

Rep. Pallone asked whether Facebook is limiting the amount of data it collects and whether it is changing its user default settings to be more protective of privacy. Mr. Zuckerberg said yes to both questions, but Rep. Pallone said he doesn’t “see that” in the announcements the company has made in recent weeks.

Rep. Pallone asked for a commitment that the company will change “all user default settings to minimize to the greatest extent possible the collection and use of data.”

“This is a complex issue that I think deserves more than a one-word answer,” Mr. Zuckerberg said. “Maybe we can follow up with you on that.”

Rep. Pallone said, “You still allow third-parties to have access to data.”

Mr. Zuckerberg said, “We allow people to choose to sign into other apps and to bring their data with them.” He emphasized, as he did repeatedly throughout the hearing, that many people want to share their Facebook data with apps. Later in the hearing, he argued that it is the desire of users to port or share their data, not Facebook’s business model and financial incentives, that is in conflict with the desire of users to keep their data “locked down.”

Rep. Joe Barton (R., Texas) was one of many Republican members who asked Mr. Zuckerberg about Facebook’s recent removal of content from two conservative African American women who blog as “Diamond and Silk.”

“In that specific case our team made an enforcement error and we’ve been in contact with them,” Mr. Zuckerberg said.

Rep. Fred Upton (R., Mich.) revisited the issue in his questioning, adding that a former state lottery commissioner who announced his candidacy for the Michigan state senate last week had his ad rejected by Facebook, which suggested it violated the platform’s policy against ads that depict violence or threats to violence.

Mr. Zuckerberg said, “I’m not familiar with that particular case. It’s possible we made a mistake.” He added, “Unfortunately we don’t always get these things right when people report them to us.”

Rep. Barton asked, “Is there any reason we could have a no data-sharing policy until you’re 18? Nobody gets to access it. Nobody gets to scrape it.”

Mr. Zuckerberg said, “We have a number of measures to protect minors,” including a bar on contacts from adults who are not already Facebook friends of the minor. However, he said, “teens often do want to share their opinions publicly.”

Rep. Barton complained that “you have to really work at it” to adjust your privacy settings on Facebook.

Rep. Bobby Rush (D., Ill.) suggested that Facebook’s collection of data is akin to efforts by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and local law enforcement to infiltrate civil rights groups to “maliciously trick” individuals and organizations into providing information on others.

Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D., Calif.) said, “I believe our democratic institutions are undergoing a stress test.” She added that making privacy choices is “a minefield.”

She asked whether Mr. Zuckerberg’s personal data was disclosed in the Cambridge Analytica incident. He said it was.

She also asked, “Are you willing to change your business model in the interest of protecting individual privacy?”

Mr. Zuckerberg replied, “I’m not sure what that means.”

Rep. Eshoo said she would follow up with him on the issue.

Rep. Eliot Engel (D., N.Y.) asked whether Facebook intends to sue Cambridge Analytica or Cambridge University.

“It’s something we’re looking into,” Mr. Zuckerberg said.

Rep. Gene Green (D., Texas) asked Mr. Zuckerberg to commit to make “the same protections available to Americans” as Europeans will have when the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation goes into effect next month. He said yes.

Using her favored term for an individual’s online personal data, communications and technology subcommittee Chairman Marsha Blackburn (R., Tenn.) asked, “Who do you think owns your ‘virtual you’?”

“I believe everyone owns their content online,” Mr. Zuckerberg said.

Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D., Mass.) later raised the issue of metadata — information based on users’ activities, rather than the content they post. “I don’t understand then how people own that data. That’s part of the rub.”

Rep. Blackburn noted that pending bipartisan legislation, the Balancing the Rights of Web Surfers Equally and Responsibly Act (BROWSER Act, or HR 2520), would subject “the entire [Internet] ecosystem” to the same regulatory regime, and she asked Mr. Zuckerberg to commit to working with the committee on the bill.

Mr. Zuckerberg said he is “not directly familiar” with the bill.

“Let’s get familiar,” Rep. Blackburn replied. “The BROWSER Act is only 13 pages, so you can easily get familiar with it.” She added, “You’re already doing much of [what the bill would require] if you’re doing everything you claim,” such as giving users the right to erase their data.

Later, Rep. Leonard Lance (R., N.J.) also asked Mr. Zuckerberg to review the BROWSER Act and to support it. Mr. Zuckerberg said, “We will review it and get back to you.”

Switching topics, Rep. Blackburn asked, “Do you subjectively manipulate your algorithms to prioritize or censure speech?”

Mr. Zuckerberg said, “There are types of content like terrorism we all agree should not be on [the Internet.]” Rep. Blackburn interjected, “Silk [the conservative blogger] is not terrorism.”

Rep. Steve Scalise (R., La.) similarly asked whether there was a Facebook “directive to put a [liberal-conservative] bias in the algorithm” for reviewing content. He said that someone from the technology staff of the Obama presidential campaign recently said that Facebook officials said they allowed the campaign to “do things” in terms of data collections that others were not allowed to do, because “we’re on your side.”

Mr. Zuckerberg said, “We didn’t allow the Obama campaign to do anything any other app developer would not have been allowed to do.”

Other lawmakers who raised the issue of the Diamond and Silk content included Rep. Billy Long (R., Mo.) and Richard Hudson (R., N.C.), in whose district the bloggers reside.

Rep. John Sarbanes (D., Md.) suggested that the bias may run the other way, saying that nearly six million Trump campaign ads were approved by Facebook compared to less than a million for the Clinton campaign. He asked for terms offered the campaigns for sales support or “embeds,” as he called them.

Rep. Bob Latta (R., Ohio) asked how long it will take Facebook to investigate each of the apps that had access to significant data before the changes in 2014.

“It’s going to take many months to go through this whole process, and it’s going to be an expensive process … but we think that it’s the right thing to do,” Mr. Zuckerberg said.

Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D., N.C.) asked for a commitment to “personally convene a meeting of CEOs in your sector … to develop a strategy” on employment diversity.

“I think that’s a good idea and we should follow up on it,” Mr. Zuckerberg said.

Rep. Lance said that he believes the Cambridge Analytica incident may have violated the FTC’s 2011 consent decree with Facebook that required the company to strengthen its privacy policies.

Several lawmakers — including Reps. Kathy Castor (D., Fla.) and Reps. Debbie Dingell (D., Mich.) — questioned whether Facebook collects data on users when they’re not logged into Facebook, as well as on individuals who don’t have Facebook accounts if they visit sites with Facebook “like” or “share” buttons.

Rep. Ben Lujan (D., N.M.) said that Facebook is “collecting data on people who are not Facebook users,” but “the only way [for individuals to see or delete] that data is to sign up for a Facebook account.”

Among the lawmakers who asked about offers on Facebook to sell opioids without a prescription were Reps. David McKinley (R., W.Va.), Gus Bilirakis (R., Fla.), and Kevin Cramer (R., N.D.)

Mr. Zuckerberg emphasized that the company is working to develop automated tools to take down such content, rather than have to rely on user reports and human content reviewers.

In response to a question from Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R., Ill.) about the unauthorized use of his image and those of others to create fake accounts, Mr. Zuckerberg also suggested that artificial intelligence is the way to solve this “important issue.”

Rep. Tony Cardenas (D., Calif.) noted that the Cambridge Analytica board had announced that the CEO had stepped down.

The board said that acting CEO Alexander Tayler, who had been named to that role when the board suspended CEO Alexander Nix pending an investigation in the wake of a British TV report in which Mr. Nix was secretly quoted describing the firm’s practices (TR Daily, March 20), has resumed his former position of chief data officer “in order to focus on the various technical investigations and inquiries. We would like to thank Dr Tayler for his service in what has been a challenging time for the company,” the board said. —Lynn Stanton, lynn.stanton@wolterskluwer.com

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