Key takeaways from Mark Zuckerberg’s Congressional appearance that media professionals should know

The unfamiliar formal attire of Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg helped tell the gravity of the situation the social network faces

In the most high profile chapter in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg was grilled by US lawmakers on Capitol Hill yesterday (April 10). From a marathon session where he faced questions on the social network’s role in democracy, its data privacy policies and how it interfaces with advertisers, The Drum collates key points likely to affect practitioners in the media industry.

The phrase ‘break the internet’ is one used much too often, but it could be argued that Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg’s appearance in front of a joint hearing of the US Senate’s Commerce and Judiciary Committees did just that, with #Zuckerberg trending on just about every online social platform.

Facing questions from almost half of the members of the US Senate, the Facebook chief was grilled for close to five hours on his thoughts on a wide range of topics including internet regulation, fake news, foreign interference, plus the social network’s privacy policies.

'Move fast with stable infrastructure'

Zuckerberg used the forum to discuss his openness “in principle” for more explicit privacy terms similar to GDPR – statements which could be interpreted as a defense of the “walled garden” model – more proactive attempts from Facebook to police its ecosystem, and the concept of an ‘ad-free Facebook’.

Gone now is its former swashbuckling mantra of 'move fast and break things' that characterized Facebook's early days as a pre-IPO startup, which has since made way for the new adage of "move fast with stable infrastructure".

In a pre-prepared statement, Zuckerberg struck a conciliatory tone, echoing his public statements in recent weeks. “We didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibility and that was a big mistake, and it was my mistake, and I’m sorry,” he told elected officials. “Overall, we’re going through a broader philosophical shift in how we approach our responsibility."

1.) US lawmakers are proposing tighter restrictions over user consent and data sharing similar to the EU’s GDPR

As Zuckerberg faced questions on his thoughts on the prospect of internet regulation, it emerged that Senators Edward J Markey, and Richard Blumenthal, tabled a privacy bill of rights dubbed the Customer Online Notification for Stopping Edge-provider Network Transgressions (CONSENT Act) as a response to “the avalanche of privacy violations by Facebook and other online companies”.

CONSENT would require “edge providers” – read companies such as Facebook and Google – to “obtain opt-in consent from users to use, share, or sell users’ personal information” with the pair proposing the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) as the enforcing body.

The principles outlined in the accompanying document broadly reflect the principles set out in the upcoming General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) about to be enforced in the European Union. Despite this, Zuckerberg’s performance under questioning from elected officials generally meant its stock price performed well, having risen steadily throughout the day.

Facing direct questions on whether he would support such ‘GDPR-esque’ legislation, Zuckerberg defended the social network’s existing policies, stressing that users do have control over the extent to which their personal data is monetized.

“To your broader point about our privacy policy, this gets to a point that we and others in the tech industry have found challenging,” he added.

“Long privacy policies are very confusing, and if you make it long and spell out all the detail, then you’re probably going to reduce the percent of people who read it … one of the things that we’ve struggled with is to make it as simple as possible so that people can understand it, as well as giving them controls in line with the product.”

When pressed on whether he would support more proactive legislation in the US, Zuckerberg said he did so “in principle”, adding that Facebook would later cooperate with politicians on such proposals.

Further quizzed on whether or not GDPR rules should be adopted in the US, he stated that it was rolling out some of the principals enshrined in GDPR on a global basis, but adding that there would likely be some differences due to “different sensibilities in the US".

“We’re committed to rolling out the controls, and the affirmative consent, and the special controls around sensitive types of technology like face recognition that are required in GDPR, we’re doing that around the world,” he said. “So I think it would be worth discussing whether we should have something similar here in the US.”

2.) Combating fake news and foreign interference is Facebook’s top priority in 2018

As part of its philosophical shift in its position in society, Zuckerberg acknowledged mistakes of the past and stated how it was now not enough for the company just to build tools that connect people, rather it will aim to fight some of the ills facing contemporary society.

This will involve more than 20,000 Facebook employees armed with artificial intelligence (AI) working on security and content review to help combat the spread of fake news, hate speech, overt election interfering, as well as paramilitary content.

“Increasingly, we are developing AI tools that can identify certain classes of bad activity proactively, and flag it for our team at Facebook … until we get it more fully automated there’s a higher error rate than I am happy with.”

He later went on to state how one of his deepest personal disappointments during his 14-year tenure at the helm of Facebook was the extent of Russian interference in the 2016 US Presidential race via content on the social network.

In particular, Zuckerberg went on to state how one of his top priorities for 2018 is to ensure that Facebook does everything it can to protect the integrity of the world’s major elections taking place this year.

“We need to take a more proactive view in policing the ecosystem, and making sure that all these members of the ecosystem are using tools in a way that’s good for the community.”

3.) Zuckerberg did not close the door on the prospect of a premium service, but the ad-funded model is more aligned with its ‘mission’

In a rare public appearance in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica outcry, Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg raised the fact that Facebook’s use of data was critical to its status as a service free at the point of consumption. When questioned directly on whether the social network was considering a premium (ad-free) service Zuckerberg did not close the door on such a prospect.

“While there is some discomfort for sure with using information in making ads more relevant, the overwhelming feedback we get is that people would rather have us show relevant content there than not,” he said, describing its data privacy controls.

Zuckerberg went on to say: “What Sheryl was saying was that with no ads at all, we’d still need some sort of business model … to be clear, we don’t offer an option today for people not to be shown ads. We think that an ad-supported service is the most aligned to our mission of helping to connect everyone in the world."

However, he later went on to reiterate “there will always be a version of Facebook that is free.”

4.) Facebook is not listening to the public via their phones’ microphones (all of the time), and does not ‘sell user data’

Zuckerberg later went on to address some common fears among the public, namely whether it or other “edge providers” listen to users via the microphones on their cellular devices. Under direct questioning from Senators, he went on to label such allegations as a “conspiracy theory”.

Although, he did clarify that audio-visual content proactively uploaded to the social network via cell phones is indexed and that it is also theoretically possible to track users even after they have logged out of the social network.

“So while you’re taking a video we do take and record that, and use it to make the service better by making sure your videos have audio, and that I think is pretty clear,” he answered.

When directly asked to address reports that Facebook tracks users browsing history, even after they have logged out the social network, Zuckerberg requested further technical consultation, albeit, he did provide some clarity.

“I know that people use cookies on the internet and that you can probably correlate activity between sessions,” he said. “We do that for a number of reasons, including security, and measuring ads to make sure the ad experiences are the most effective, which of course people can optout of, but I want to make sure I’m more precise in my answer.”

Separately, he went on to reiterate that “Facebook does not sell users’ data”, pointing out that advertisers do not get access to its users’ data – a truism to the many advertisers that would bemoan the online media industry’s ‘walled gardens.’

For the sake of the gathered public representatives, Zuckerberg clarified the nature of its service to advertisers: “What we allow is for advertisers to tell us who they want to each, and then we do the placement.”

5.) Facebook’s privacy clampdown is not just restricted to Cambridge Analytica

Zuckerberg later went on to assure Senators that it was auditing “tens of thousands” of third-party app developers that could potentially have abused its users' data and that in future it will be more proactive in how its polices data abuses.

As part of its ongoing inquisition post the Cambridge Analytica fallout, Facebook is now auditing “every single application developer that had access to a large amount of information in the past” Zuckerberg told listeners. “If we find that someone improperly used data, we’re going to ban them from Facebook, and tell everyone affected.”

This ongoing purge will also include a concerted effort to make sure that third parties will find it more difficult to access the information on its 2 billion registered accounts, including much more regular spot checks.

“Our top priority has always been our social mission of connecting people, building community, and bringing the world closer together,” he said. “Advertisers and developers will never take priority over that as long as I’m running Facebook.”

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