What’s on your mind, Senator?
By now most of you would have seen videos of the hearing, probably on Facebook itself, and laughed at the absurdity of some of the questions and at Zuckerberg’s replies. (My personal favourite was the blunt “Senator, we run ads” that was followed by a creepy smile.) The hearing was on Facebook’s data handling practices. This was in light of Cambridge Analytica, a political consultancy firm which analyses data, gaining access to the personal information of up to 87 million Facebook users. The firm gained this information from a company called Global Science Research (GSR), and used this information to provide targeted voter advertising to political campaigns.
Why is this significant?
However, underlying the entire hearing was the feeling that not much is known about Facebook. Even the number “87 million affected users” is just an estimate provided by Facebook, with Cambridge Analytics claiming only 30 million individuals had their data taken. There is little knowledge about how Facebook uses the information they collect or how their algorithm really works, and this gap in public knowledge really showed in the questions asked by the senators. If there is to be any concrete policy regulating Facebook (which even Zuckerberg believes there should be), online data privacy needs to be understood.
But this seemed hard to achieve at the hearing. For one, each of the 44 senators was only allowed 5 minutes to ask their questions. This meant little time for argument, idea development or to actually grill Mark Zuckerberg (Shanmugam would be disappointed) on how user’s data is stored and used. Some argue that the entire hearing was just for theatrics, to deflect and confuse the public. After all, it seemed that at times Zuckerberg was just “smoking” and “fluffing” through the hard questions, waiting for the time to run out. Others argue that Zuckerberg was humble and apologetic, reassuring lawmakers of what Facebook has done, is doing and will do to prevent another similar incident.
Zuckerberg might be sorry, but elsewhere in the USA, Facebook is paying lobbyists to remove privacy laws that could hurt its ability to amass personal information.