April 11, 2018

Zuckerberg and the Facebook Data Black Hole

The Senate grills Facebook’s founder for failing to protect privacy while allowing biased censoring of content.

On Tuesday, Facebook creator and CEO Mark Zuckerberg faced pointed questions in a Senate hearing prompted by the recent kerfuffle over Cambridge Analytica’s accessing of Facebook-generated user data. Senators on both sides of the aisle grilled Zuckerberg. A particularly revealing exchange that got right to the heart of the problem Congress should address — protecting Americans’ privacy rights — occurred between Zuckerberg and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL).

> Durbin: “Would you be comfortable sharing with us the name of the hotel you stayed in last night?”
Zuckerberg (taking a long pause): “Um, no.”
Durbin: “If you messaged anybody this week, would you share with us the names of the people you’ve messaged?”
Zuckerberg: “I would probably not choose to do that publicly here.”
Durbin: “I think that may be what this is all about. Your right to privacy. The limits of your right to privacy. And how much you give away in modern America in the name of ‘connecting people around the world.’ A question basically of what information Facebook’s collecting, who they’re sending it to, and whether they ever asked me, in advance, my permission to do that. Is that a fair thing for a user of Facebook to expect?”
Zuckerberg: “Yes, senator. I think everyone should have control over how their information is used.”

Durbin deserves credit for not grandstanding about fake news, but focussing on the real issue — private data dissemination by social media aggregators.

As Mark Alexander noted prior to the hearings, “Congress has the authority to enact, and should, legislation requiring social media and other aggregators of individual user data be required to obtain specific and explicit user permissions for each and every transfer of such data, prior to that transfer. And the financial penalties for failing to do so should be steep.”

But Zuckerberg also faced other serious inquiries, most notably Facebook’s practice of suppressing conservative content, which their PC censors have done with Patriot Post content. Both Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Ben Sasse (R-NE) took the opportunity to grill Zuckerberg over the issue of censorship. Sasse suggested that Facebook’s policies are “less than First Amendment full-spirit embracing.” He also pressed Zuckerberg to define “hate speech,” which the tech guru could not do, after Zuckerberg had admitted it’s a category used by Facebook as a guideline for limiting speech. Sasse pointedly stated, “I’m worried about the psychological categories around speech. We see this happening on college campuses all across the country. It’s dangerous.”

Cruz also called out Zuckerberg over Facebook’s leftist bias, asking, “Do you consider yourself a neutral public forum or are you engaged in political speech, which is your right under the First Amendment?” Zuckerberg responded, “Well, senator, our goal is certainly not to engage in political speech.” But Cruz didn’t let him off the hook and followed up by listing multiple instances where conservative content was limited or censored. Zuckerberg then suggested he was unaware of the biased censoring of political content, but he did admit that Facebook’s location in Silicon Valley “is an extremely left-leaning place.” That’s putting it mildly.

There are two issues at play here; one deals with protecting Americans’ privacy rights, the other with free speech. Facebook plays fast and loose with users’ data. As Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) bluntly opined, “Here’s what everybody has been trying to tell you [Zuckerberg] today, and I say this gently: Your user agreement sucks!” Meanwhile, Zuckerberg and the Left would love to paint Facebook’s primary problem as one of needing help in preventing the dissemination of “fake news” and propaganda, not one of needing to better protect user data. What has made Facebook so profitable has been its ability to accumulate and then sell user data, and that’s why it’s the last thing Zuckerberg wants regulated. Instead, he would love for the focus to be on protecting Americans against the “dangerous” influence of propaganda — from conservatives, of course.

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