The 10-plus hours of Q&A between Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and members of both houses of congress on April 10 and 11 was, in a word, painful. Agonizingly painful, as we watched one senator and congressman/congresswoman after the other demonstrate their lack of basic knowledge of how the internet and Facebook worked. The fortunate members of Congress were those who didn’t participate, as their constituents don’t have the confirmation their representation in Washington doesn’t have a clue.
It was like watching lemmings throw themselves off the cliff, one after another, asking questions in four-minute windows, as Zuckerberg went about returning the softball queries. And when the occasional on-point question was given to Zuckerberg, he more often than not was cut off because their staff’s script wasn’t finished.
Sen. Deborah Fischer (R-Neb.) read her piece like a seventh grader reading the text of Othello—the words were coming out, but they made no sense to the reader, but by-golly, they were all said. What was important—and she missed it—she was asking about metadata but did not understand enough to dig deeper.
While over on the House of Representatives side, Rep. Gene Green (D-Texas) showed equal dexterity and speed reading capability while reading a list of words worthy of buzzword bingo that touched on, remarkably, browser data, user behavior and data retention by Facebook. However, it appeared, sadly, that Green didn’t have a handle on what his staff had given him to read.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) asked how Facebook made money? Zuckerberg’s response, “We run ads.”
New York Times correspondent Dave Itzkoff’s Tweet summed the status quo up nicely:
“Mr. Zuckerberg, a magazine i recently opened came with a floppy disk offering me 30 free hours of something called America On-Line. Is that the same as Facebook?” pic.twitter.com/U7pqpUhEhQ
— Dave Itzkoff (@ditzkoff) April 10, 2018
Two Who Hit Home
Now it would be unfair to say all were horrible, as two senators helped the day forward.
To his credit, Sen. Dick Durban (D-Ill.) may have displayed his complete understanding of the privacy ramifications of the use of Facebook’s accumulation of user-owned content by companies buying ads on Facebook. During a 30-second exchange, he put his Georgetown Law School education to good use as he engaged Zuckerberg in a quick lawyer-witness exchange.
He asked Zuckerberg, “Would you be comfortable sharing with us the name of the hotel you stayed in last night?” Zuckerberg uttered, “um,” and then paused a moment and responded, with a smile and a chortle, “No.”
Durban continued, “If you’ve messaged anybody this week, would you share with us the names of the people you’ve messaged?”
“Senator, no, I would probably not choose to do that publicly here,” Zuckerberg responded.
“I think that might be what this is all about—your right to privacy, the limits of your right to privacy, and how much you’d give away in modern America,” Durbin said.
A bit later, Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) started his four-minute segment with, “I come in peace. I don’t want to have to vote to regulate Facebook. But by god, I will.”
He then laid it out for Zuckerberg how “our promised digital utopia” has minefields. “There’s some impurities in the Facebook punchbowl.” He then, pragmatically noted that these impurities had to be fixed and that he had every confidence Zuckerberg could fix them.
Kennedy the addressed what he called the “privacy problem.” Kennedy zinged Zuckerberg with, “… here’s what everyone’s been trying to tell you today, and I say this gently, Your user agreement sucks.” He continued how the user agreement was written to “cover Facebook’s rear end, it’s not to inform users about their rights. Now you know that, and I know that.”
He then suggested that Facebook’s $1,200-per-hour lawyers rewrite the user agreement in plain English.”
The Senate would have been well-served to have asked the Facebook office of congressional affairs to have availed to the senators and congressmen/women and their staff a tutorial on the basics of Facebook’s business model.
The end result will come about in two weeks. The window for members of the various congressional committees have this as their deadline to “revise and expand” their remark, to include additional questions. Let’s hope they bring in some technology consultants to help them write the questions.
Then Zuckerberg will have a period of time to provide written answers to the questions and the mountain of items he promised to have his staff get back to interlocutor or committee.
I know that I, for one, would have fallen out of my chair if there was a question regarding how Facebook aggregates, slices and dices the metadata behind each and every engagement, not to mention his comment to Sen. Kennedy on the need to be more user-friendly and explicit on how users may restrict the use of their “owned content.”
The crux of the two days of hearings is this: Facebook dropped proverbial privacy ball into the drain and its now running downhill into the storm sewer while torrential rains are falling.
These are scary times ahead and social networks—Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and others—will be filling the coffers of congressional lobbyists to try and shape the coming onslaught of proposed bills regulating social networks, as Sen. Kennedy so succinctly put it. If you want your say, contact your representative and take the time to educate them about the internet, social networks and how you the user of these social networks would like to see your data handled, protected and shared.
Just don’t blink if they ask you to send in your thoughts on a floppy disk.