Congress tried to crack Zuckerberg – but Facebook still has all the power

Analysis: even as senators challenged the social media CEO, they were directing listeners to the social network he created

If there was one moment that crystallized the absurdity of Tuesday’s marathon Senate grilling of Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, it was the tweets.

Two tweets, one each from Senators Richard Blumenthal and Kamala Harris, urged their constituents to follow a link to their own Facebook pages, where they were streaming Facebook Live video of the proceedings on Capitol Hill.

The pair of Democrats were among the sharpest questioners of Zuckerberg on a day that was long on political theatrics and short on new information. But their tweets reveal the unspoken dynamic: Zuckerberg is in the hot seat today, but Facebook still has all the power.

No matter how much political hay elected officials might make out of criticizing Facebook, they are just as locked into the system as other users are. Legislation, regulation or antitrust action could change that by loosening Facebook’s stranglehold on our data and attention, but all three are exceedingly unlikely in the current political climate.

So while the politicians raged within the confines of their self-imposed impotence and Zuckerberg unveiled the latest in artificial intelligence (he presumably programmed himself to begin every sentence with “Senator”), Facebook’s stock price had one of its best days since the Observer broke the news of the massive data harvest last month.

Facebook is such a pervasive force in modern society that it was impossible for all 44 senators to limit themselves to the ostensible topic of the hearing: social media privacy and data.

Questions from the senators, who got five minutes apiece, covered issues including foreign interference in elections, illegal discrimination in advertising, law enforcement access to data, the tech industry’s lack of diversity, the impenetrable prose of Facebook’s terms of service, social media addiction, hate speech, censorship, monopoly and competition, the persistent suspicion among users that Facebook is listening to their conversations (it’s not), and the difference between platforms and publishers.

Zuckerberg hewed closely to his talking points, which relied heavily on Facebook’s foundational myth: that users are in control of their data. Again and again, the 33-year-old executive asserted that users control who has access to the data they “share” with Facebook.

When questions were raised about information that Facebook derives about its users separately from their status updates or photographs – the decidedly creepier ad-tech surveillance that allows Facebook to do things like track users across the internet – Zuckerberg dodged, deflected and at times even claimed ignorance.

When Harris finally got to speak, she used up much of her five minutes with a list of all the questions Zuckerberg hadn’t answered, including “whether Facebook can track activity after a user logs off, whether Facebook can track you across devices, who is Facebook’s biggest competition, [and] whether Facebook stores up to 96 categories of users’ information”.

There were some interesting exchanges, especially from those senators who treated Zuckerberg more like the billionaire executive that he is than the precocious college student that he undoubtedly once was.

Senator Patrick Leahy raised the urgent question of Facebook’s complicity in amplifying the hate speech that has fueled the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in Myanmar – and cut Zuckerberg off when he offered platitudes about the “terrible tragedy”.

Blumenthal revealed that the terms of service for the app that was used by Aleksandr Kogan to harvest the data in question actually did include permission for his company to “edit, copy, disseminate, publish, transfer, append or merge with other databases, sell, license (by whatever means and on whatever terms) and archive” the information – calling into question Facebook’s stance that Kogan “deceived” them.

Senator Jerry Moran, in a back and forth about whether Facebook violated its consent decree with the Federal Trade Commission, got Zuckerberg to concede that “the system worked as it was designed” when Kogan harvested the data: “The issue is that we designed the system in a way that wasn’t good.”

And Zuckerberg revealed that Kogan sold his cache of data to other companies besides Cambridge Analytica.

In the end, it was Zuckerberg’s attitude toward his own privacy that was most revealing of the difference between the control that Facebook offers users and actual privacy. Zuckerberg said many times that he and his all his family used Facebook – a talking point we were apparently meant to take as proof that Facebook is safe.

Yet under questioning from Senator Dick Durbin, Zuckerberg expressed discomfort with revealing certain personal information, such as which hotel he was staying at while in Washington DC.

I’m a relatively well-informed Facebook user. I probably pay more attention than most people to privacy settings, and I consistently turn off things like location tracking. And yet, my Facebook data includes dozens of cases where the company has logged my location based on my IP address.

Zuckerberg may not want us to know where he slept last night, but his company sure as hell knows where the rest of us are sleeping.


Julia Carrie Wong in San Francisco

The GuardianTramp

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