When lawmakers get their first chance to grill Facebook Inc. chief executive Mark Zuckerberg on Tuesday and Wednesday, expect a good amount of grandstanding.
Elected representatives love scoring political points in these sorts of hearings, especially because it can lead to videos that go viral on Facebook and Twitter. But they aren’t always so well informed about how social media data collection works or how it is vulnerable to abuse.
The columnists of Bloomberg View and Bloomberg Gadfly are here to help. We’ve assembled a list of suggestions for what members of Congress should ask Zuckerberg and the best way to extract serious responses to the serious issues at stake.
Data and privacy
Stephen L. Carter: Facebook collects reams of data on its users. Would you say that the data belongs to Facebook or to the user from whom it is collected?
Shira Ovide: Do you think average Facebook users, including your parents, understand that Facebook gathers information from websites and apps that have nothing to do with Facebook, including all the websites with Facebook “Like” buttons and apps like Uber? Would you agree to limit data collection to people’s activity on Facebook and other Facebook-owned digital properties?
Joe Nocera: Do you have any objection to having people opt-in in order for you to share their data? If so, why?
Michael R. Strain: Many people are concerned that Facebook is dominant to the point that it is much too difficult for rival companies to compete. A solution to this might be to reassign the ownership of Facebook users’ social graphs away from Facebook and to the user. Do you think giving ownership of social graphs to users is a good idea? If not, why not?
Scott Duke Kominers: Will Facebook contact every individual whose data was accessed inappropriately and explain what information was collected, and “- to the best of your knowledge “- how that information was shared and used? Will Facebook take steps to compensate individuals for the breach?
Alex Webb: Apple uses a process it calls “differential privacy” to anonymise user data that it aggregates. What precludes Facebook from doing the same?
Barry Ritholtz: How much would Facebook have to charge for a monthly subscription with zero off-platform tracking, no ads, and periodic permanent deletion of all internal Facebook data on users?
Alex Webb: What will Facebook do to reduce its dependence on user data as a revenue source?
Shira Ovide: Do you regret saying soon after the US presidential election that it was a “pretty crazy idea” that information on Facebook could have influenced the US presidential election?
Cathy O’Neil: What are you doing about Russian meddling?
Eli Lake: One of your vice presidents, Rob Goldman, got into a bit of trouble in February after he tweeted that most of Russia’s Facebook ads were purchased after the 2016 election. He had to backtrack in part because he didn’t account for Russia’s use of trolls and fake accounts. But his tweets raised an important question: Could you put Russia’s total online campaign in perspective? How does it compare to social media influence operations of other countries and political parties in terms of both reach and money spent?
Impact on society
Leonid Bershidsky: Which do you think constitutes the biggest breach of trust: allowing developers to take people’s data without their consent, spreading “news” you know is fake, accepting advertising you know is fraudulent, or not letting advertisers audit how their ads are played? Please rank them.
Conor Sen: Facebook’s user experience, with posts showing up based on algorithms meant to maximise engagement, is wildly successful “- perhaps too successful. The question raised by SalesForce CEO Marc Benioff is a good one: Is Facebook’s addictive nature societally harmful, and should it be regulated like cigarettes?
Ramesh Ponnuru: Not long ago, most people got their news by reading the paper or watching a network. Identifiable people selected which stories they would know and which people would tell them. Thanks in large part to your company, more and more people learn about developments in the world based on machines using processes almost none of those people understand. Can you describe the process by which some stories are brought to users’ attention and others are not? Can you describe it without using the word “algorithm”? What do you think people need to understand about this process?
Matthew Winkler: According to recent research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, false news travels faster than true stories. How should Facebook prevent fake news from travelling?
Conor Sen: When it comes to news posts and political advertising, why should Facebook get a regulatory exemption that traditional media doesn’t get?
Virginia Postrel: Bloomberg BusinessWeek has a disturbing report on the shady operators, called affiliates, who use Facebook ads, often with phoney celebrity endorsements, to sell things like fake diet pills and “free” offers that come with hefty monthly credit-card charges. While the 1996 Telecommunication Act wisely exempts platforms from liability for their users’ posts, advertising seems to fall into another category. Facebook actively solicits it, profits from it, and gives it credibility by accepting it. To get their money, it has to have some idea who these advertisers are. What scrutiny does Facebook give the ads it accepts? What reasonable liability standards might we apply to its advertising?
Eli Lake: In the last few years, a growing number of activists (primarily on the right) have complained that their pages on Instagram, Facebook and other social media platforms have been de-emphasised in searches and newsfeeds. This practice, sometimes called “shadow-banning” is murky. Could you tell us whether Facebook practices “shadow-banning,” and if so how do you determine what pages and feeds to de-emphasise?
Stephen L. Carter: Is Facebook in its hiring, promotion, and retention concerned in any way with the political or ideological views of its employees?
Shira Ovide: Throughout Facebook’s 14-year history, there have been repeated controversies about the company’s data-collection policies or privacy violations, including the 2011 Federal Trade Commission finding that Facebook repeatedly told people they could keep their information on Facebook private and then the FTC found multiple times when that information was able to be shared or made public. First, does Facebook believe it has complied with the FTC settlement that barred it from making “any further deceptive privacy claims?” And second, do the repeated, persistent user-privacy controversies in Facebook’s history indicate that something is broken at the company?
Alex Webb: When was the last time any of your lieutenants told you one of your suggestions was a bad idea?
Shira Ovide: You and other company executives have been saying that you are optimists and weren’t prepared to envision misuses of Facebook of the kind we’ve seen from Russia-backed troll farms in the US and anti-Rohingya discrimination in Myanmar. But in 2016, one of your senior executives, Andrew Bosworth, circulated an intentionally provocative internal memo that weighed the downsides of trying to connect the world. “Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated on our tools,” the memo said. Does that say “- contrary to what you’ve been saying in interviews for the last year “- that Facebook did in fact anticipate the potential risks of the social network and simply didn’t want to change what it did?
Adam Minter: In July 2009, the Chinese government blocked Facebook in China. The precise reason for that action remains obscure, but it fits into an overall pattern. The Chinese government is unwilling to allow a social media platform “- foreign or domestic “- operate in China unless it agrees to abide by Chinese law. First, a social media platform must agree to censor content and conversations in line with directives from China’s information authorities. And second, businesses that collect data from Chinese individuals can only store that data in China where, presumably, it would be easier for the Chinese government to access, via legal or other means. You’ve made no secret of your desire to see Facebook available once again in China. Could you please reveal to the committee whether you are willing to agree to either of these requirements? And second, will Facebook pledge to guarantee its future Chinese users the same level of privacy protection it gives its users in the US and the European Union?
And finally, some general advice for lawmakers
Jonathan Bernstein: This kind of hearing — celebrity testifying, no particular legislation in mind — is not about making policy. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that, so go ahead and ask the most sensationalist question. The goal is to generate publicity; you might as well get some.