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Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t know how Facebook works. Unfortunately neither does anyone in Congress

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    AP/Andrew Harnik

    AP/Andrew Harnik

    During a marathon five-hour Senate hearing on Tuesday, Facebook Founder and Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg frequently expressed regret for various company failures, such as allowing Russian propaganda and fake news stories to spread widely.

    “We didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibility, and that was a big mistake. It was my mistake, and I’m sorry. I started Facebook, I run it, and I’m responsible for what happens here,” the 33-year-old billionaire said in his widely circulated opening statement. As various observers have already noted, that's not nearly enough.

    Zuckerberg’s repeated apologies and promises to make (or simply to accept) modest, cosmetic change were enough to mollify several of the 40-plus senators who showed up for the hottest congressional hearing in a decade. But some more savvy members couldn’t help but notice that the Facebook CEO has a long history of violating user privacy and then having to backtrack after public outcry.

    The most significant takeaway from the hearing, however, was the realization that despite having grown the company from his Harvard dorm room into a worldwide behemoth with more 2 billion active users, Zuckerberg does not seem to understand how his company operates. Over and over again, the Facebook chief was unable to answer important questions.

    He had no real answer to Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., as to why Facebook should not be considered a monopoly. “It certainly doesn’t feel like that to me,” Zuckerberg averred. He couldn’t answer Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., who asked about Facebook’s practice of monitoring its users’ web browsing even after they log out. (Unfortunately, no senator asked about Facebook’s practice of tracking people who have never even registered for its service.)

    Zuckerberg actually did answer Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who inquired whether Facebook had discovered other instances similar to Russian-American psychologist Aleksandr Kogan’s sale of collected Facebook user data to the controversial marketing firm Cambridge Analytica.

    “Yes, we have. I don’t have the exact figure on how many times we have,” Zuckerberg responded. That was an apparent contradiction of what Facebook’s COO, Sheryl Sandberg, told BuzzFeed last week.

    “As we find more Cambridge Analyticas, we’re going to find a comprehensive way to put them out and make sure people see them,” Sandberg said. “So far, we don’t have another clear case to share.”

    Just days after Sandberg’s comments, however, CNBC reported that another marketing firm called CubeYou was currently slurping up millions of Facebook users’ information through fraudulently labeled quizzes. This raises the question of whether the social media giant has any idea how many nefarious developers have operated on its platform.

    Facebook all but confirmed that this is the case hours before Zuckerberg’s testimony, when it announced a “data abuse bounty” initiative, which would pay people to report third-party apps that improperly harvest user data.

    Zuckerberg himself inadvertently suggested several times that Facebook is unaware of what happened to its members’ information by confidently referring to “full investigations” and “audits” of apps that had access to many different member profiles.

    Toward the end of the hearing, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., asked Zuckerberg how he could actually succeed at these efforts, since accused third-party developers could easily transfer data somewhere else, where Facebook can't find it. Zuckerberg’s only response was that his company would try to use civil lawsuits, a totally ineffective measure in a world where gigabytes of data can be transferred anywhere in the world in seconds.

    “I don’t see how you can perform a full audit if they’ve got stuff stored somewhere else that we can’t get access to,” Tester said.

    “Well, I think we’ll know once we get in there, whether we feel like we can fully investigate everything,” Zuckerberg replied. Given the absurd time constraints of the hearing, Tester was unable to press harder on this important line of inquiry.

    The five-minute limit under which each senator was compelled to operate produced several moments like this one, where Zuckerberg gave an unconvincing or incomplete answer without having to adequately explain himself. Likewise, no senator was able to ask why the CEO is currently employing psychologist Joseph Chancellor, the former co-director of the company that sold Cambridge Analytica its Facebook user data.

    Time was not the only factor that allowed Zuckerberg to skirt difficult questions. A number of times, various senators asked questions that had already been explored in depth, wasting precious time rehashing familiar topics. Most absurdly, Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., gave a plug for his 13-year-old son’s Instagram account.

    On several other occasions, senators’ lack of technical knowledge prevented them from sufficiently pressuring Zuckerberg. Despite his good question about data storage, Tester seemed unaware that Facebook’s developer interface allows partners unfettered control over the information they download from users. That means the same dataset could be transferred to any number of different entities, all without Facebook ever knowing it had happened. The Montana senator also seemed unaware of the long-standing principle that internet platform operators are given an unlimited license to the data of their users, even as the customers retain full ownership.

    Other senators made similar gaffes. Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, asked Zuckerberg if Facebook would cooperate with requests from the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau to seek data about people applying for immigration visas. She didn't seem aware that ICE has only expressed interest in collecting publicly available information and would not need assistance from Facebook.

    Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who will retire next year, seemed unaware that Facebook’s business model was based on offering a free service and serving advertisements to users. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., inquired about a conspiracy theory that Facebook records audio of its users talking in order to show them ads.

    Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, an experienced attorney, managed to badly mangle a legal question. In what he seemed to think was a hardball line of inquiry, Cruz botched a critical reference while claiming that Facebook discriminated against conservative users, thereby opening itself up to lawsuits.

    “The predicate for Section 230 immunity under the CDCA is that you are a neutral public forum,” he stated, attempting to cite a portion of the 1996 Communications Decency Act (CDA), which actually does nothing at all similar to what Cruz had claimed.

    Tuesday’s hearing produced important moments, nonetheless. Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin’s deft exposition of Zuckerberg’s hypocrisy about his own obsessive concern for privacy was perhaps the best such vignette.

    Overall, however, the upshot from the Facebook CEO’s first day of congressional testimony is that Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t know what’s going on inside his own company. Unfortunately, a great many of America’s policymakers don’t know either.

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