Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Capitol Hill on April 11, 2018 in Washington, DC [Chip Somodevilla/AFP]
In his second hearing on Capitol Hill to provide answers following revelations of a massive data privacy breach, Mark Zuckerberg faced tougher questions from US Congress regarding the social media giant’s policies.
The Facebook CEO was also grilled about user privacy, data collection, political bias and the social network’s business model.
Facebook has been in the spotlight since news broke last month that the personal information of 87 million users had been illegally harvested by consultancy firm Cambridge Analytica in an attempt to influence political outcomes.
During the five-hour testimony on Wednesday, Zuckerberg admitted that his profile data was among those exposed in the Cambridge Analytica leak.
He said Facebook is contemplating legal action, saying there might be a slew of apps that collected data on Facebook users in a similar fashion to Cambridge Analytica.
However, he rejected suggestions from Congress members that Facebook users did not have enough control over their data.
“Every time that someone chooses to share something on Facebook … there is a control. Right there. Not buried in the settings somewhere but right there,” Zuckerberg said.
“What we saw at these hearings is that he is resisting changing the business model of Facebook, which is based entirely on harvesting user data and taking that data and use that data to help target ads,” David McCabe, a tech reporter with Axios, told Al Jazeera.
“He said he’s in favour of some kind of regulation, but he’s not behind some kind of sweeping regulation of Facebook that some critics of the company would like to see,” McCabe said.
“I think we’re not any closer to regulation of Facebook, but I do think Congress put Facebook on notice, basically saying Facebook has to clean up its act or we will come in and do it for you.”
The 33-year-old billionaire has apologised numerous times and promised to make meaningful reforms to protect data privacy.
Zuckerberg explained today that Facebook’s audits of data harvesting by outside apps would take “many months” to complete.
One of the issues raised was about the alleged political bias of the platform, with conservative legislators asking about the removal of several popular conservative Facebook pages.
Republican congressman Fred Upton cited an example of a Michigan Republican whose campaign page was removed from Facebook. Others asked the CEO about Facebook’s restriction of a page belonging to pro-Trump vloggers “Diamond and Silk”.
“Diamond and Silk was deemed ‘unsafe’. What is unsafe about two black women supporting Donald J Trump?” one of the legislators asked.
“Nothing is unsafe about that,” Zuckerberg replied, explaining that these were mistakes.
Facebook does limit some content that could be related to “terrorism” but, “We don’t think of it as censorship”.
According to Zuckerberg, the company has 200 people working on efforts to combat the promotion of “extremist” content.
Does Facebook listen in?
Larry Buschon, a Republican from Indiana, brought up a concern about Facebook listening in on people’s conversations. Buschon explained that he and his mother had a conversation about her deceased brother and later on Facebook, his mother saw a memorial photo collage of her brother come up. He cited examples of ads showing up on Facebook relating to conversations they had just had.
“It’s pretty obvious to me that someone is listening to the audio on our phones,” Buschon said.
Zuckerberg responded that Facebook does not listen in on people’s conversations and that Facebook executives bring their phones into confidential meetings.
“The only time we might use the microphone is when you use the video, but we don’t have anything that is trying to listen to what’s going on in the background,” Zuckerberg said.
Facebook has regularly been accused of listening in on conversations using microphones on smartphones and then presenting ads related to recent conversations to its users.
The company has always denied these allegations.
John Shimkus, a Republican from Illinois, asked Zuckerberg whether users are tracked when they are logged out of Facebook.
Facebook tracks “certain information for ads and security. Even if someone isn’t logged in we track how many pages they’re accessing as a security measure”, Zuckerberg said.
The company does this by using different techniques integrated into pages around the web.
Zuckerberg also confirmed reports on so-called shadow profiles, profiles of people who did not sign up for Facebook but are still being tracked.
“In general we collect data on people who are not signed up for Facebook for security purposes,” Zuckerberg said.
Lack of knowledge
Near the end of the session, Debbie Dingell, a Democrat from Michigan criticised Zuckerberg’s lack of knowledge of his own company.
“As CEO you didn’t know some key facts,” Dingell said.
“You didn’t know about key court cases regarding privacy and your company. You didn’t know that the FTC doesn’t have fining. You didn’t know what a shadow profile is. You don’t know how many apps you need to audit. You don’t know what other companies were sold the Kogan data, even though you were asked that yesterday. You don’t even know how many kinds of information you’re logging.”
Wednesday’s appearance before Congress was Zuckerberg’s second in two days. His first appearance was before a joint Senate committee.