Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg appeared today before nearly half of the U.S. Senate to respond to questions related to monopoly and regulation, to explain what Facebook is doing to protect democratic processes around the world, and to address what Zuckerberg has repeatedly described as a breach of trust between his company and its users.
“My position is not that there should be no regulation,” Zuckerberg said in response to a question from Senator Lindsey Graham about why Facebook should be allowed to regulate itself. “I think the real question as the internet becomes more important in people’s lives is what is the right regulation.”
Facebook’s chair, founder, and CEO also fielded multiple questions about whether Facebook might someday consider a paid model instead of a free model based on targeted ads, to which he responded, “There will always be a version of Facebook that is free.”
The year ahead, Zuckerberg said, will be incredibly important, not just for the U.S. midterm elections in November but also for elections in countries like Pakistan, Brazil, and Mexico.
“This is one of my top priorities in 2018 — to get this right,” he said about Facebook not being used to misinform voters. “One of my greatest regrets is that we were slow to identify the Russian threat.”
Signaling back to the founding of the company 14 years ago, at one point Zuckerberg said “I think it’s pretty much impossible to start a company in your dorm room and grow it to what we have now without making mistakes.”
Zuckerberg testified before a joint hearing of the U.S. Senate Judiciary and Commerce committees. Combined, the two have 44 members, or near half of the U.S. Senate.
While other Facebook executives, like COO Sheryl Sandberg and chief counsel Colin Stretch, have made trips to Washington D.C. to meet with or testify before legislators since the 2016 presidential election, today is Zuckerberg’s first such appearance before a Congressional committee. He is also scheduled to testify Wednesday before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.
In the days following the 2016 election, Zuckerberg called the claim that Facebook was used to spread disinformation and influence the outcome of the U.S. presidential race a “pretty crazy idea.” His assertion began to unravel last fall, however, and fell apart a few weeks ago with revelations about Cambridge Analytica’s misuse of Facebook data.
On March 16, Facebook released a statement saying it would suspend SCL Group and its company Cambridge Analytica from using the Facebook Platform due to improper use of data. In the days that followed, news outlets speaking with former Cambridge Analytica head of research Christopher Wylie reported that 50 million people’s personal data was retrieved by Aleksandr Kogan, then a researcher at Cambridge University. That figure was elevated to 87 million by Facebook last week. Users were told the information was used for a psychology test, when in fact it was used to create psychological profiles of millions of U.S. voters.
Cambridge Analytica worked for the Donald Trump presidential campaign and was associated with former Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon, funded by Trump campaign financier Robert Mercer, and used by John Bolton, President Trump’s newly appointed national security advisor.
Facebook first learned in 2015 that Cambridge Analytica had failed to destroy data improperly obtained by Kogan.
In response to recent controversy, Facebook has announced a series of changes, which Zuckerberg highlighted as part of his prepared opening statement today. The new policies include:
- Identities of administrators of large Pages and people who buy political ads will now be verified.
- Facebook Platform apps that have been given access to large amounts of user data will be inspected.
- App developers are now required to get signed contract approval to access a user’s posts or private data.
- App developers are no longer allowed access to user data if the user hasn’t used the app in three months.
Facebook also paused Facebook Platform and Messenger Platform app and bot reviews and has reportedly chosen to delay the release of its Portal video chat device with voice control and facial recognition capabilities, again due to privacy concerns.
Facebook yesterday released a tool that tells its users whether their data was improperly obtained by Cambridge Analytica. Tools have also been rolled out to let people know if they were unintentionally following a Russian bot on Facebook and to let voters know who paid for a political advertisement.
In the days leading up to his testimony, Zuckerberg endorsed the Honest Ads Act, which would require social media platforms with more than 50 million users to keep records of political advertisement purchases. Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota) and Mark Warner (D-Virginia) have called on Twitter and Google to add their support to the proposed legislation (Twitter endorsed the bill today).
Such legislation could have prevented the sale of more than $200,000 in advertising to Internet Research Agency (IRA), a troll farm that used Facebook to target voters in the United States before, during, and after the 2016 election and which is believed to be funded by the Russian government.
A dozen current and former IRA employees were indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller in February. The indictment alleges that IRA created fake organizations — like Blacktivist and Heart of Texas — with real Facebook pages in order to spread misinformation and create division among U.S. citizens before and after the 2016 election. The effort even went so far as to organize protests and counterprotests attended by Russian operatives. Last week, additional Facebook Pages and Instagram accounts associated with IRA were removed by Facebook’s security team.
Social media platforms like Facebook were used as part of a multi-pronged attack documented by more than a dozen U.S. intelligence agencies. The attack aimed to spread disinformation among voters and hack into the voting systems of more than 20 states, including the most populous — like California, Texas, Florida, and Illinois.
Investigators and state and federal authorities believe the perpetrators’ goal was to sow mistrust in democratic institutions and cast doubt on the integrity of election results.
It’s been an unprecedented, historic few weeks for Facebook, and not just because of the unfolding Cambridge Analytica scandal.
A controversial memo entitled “The Ugly” that was written by Facebook VP Andrew Bosworth in 2016 was recently leaked to the press. The memo states that relentless growth is good for the company, even if it entails compromises with Chinese authorities to get access to the country’s consumers and even if the platform is used by bullies or terrorists to further their agendas. To top it all off, last week Facebook announced plans to release an unsend feature for Messenger following reports that messages sent by Zuckerberg on Facebook Messenger had mysteriously disappeared.
More to come.