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New Questions for Mark Zuckerberg Emerge at House Energy and Commerce Hearing

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Today was day two on Capitol Hill for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who faced tougher questions from Representatives on topics that weren't covered in yesterday's Senate hearing.

The hearing, titled "Facebook: Transparency and Use of Consumer Data," saw different issues broached by lawmakers that, much of the time, specifically reflected the concerns of their constituents.

Yesterday's questions from Senators seemed general and repetitive -- some of them having already been answered by both Zuckerberg and other Facebook executives in the weeks leading up to the hearing. These included, among other items, Facebook's origins (Zuckerberg's dorm room), the use of user data (it's not sold, Zuckerberg repeatedly emphasized), and the possibility of regulation.

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And while some of today's questions did include or touch on those points, the concerns seemed a bit more niche in nature. Several of them suggested greater comprehension and preparation by the committee of the many issues Facebook has been dealing with for the last four years.

The hearing lasted just over five hours, covering a great deal of ground.  No time to read? Check out this video digest -- or read on to learn about some key takeaways.

Content Review

Since it was first revealed that Facebook was weaponized by foreign actors to spread misinformation and divisive content intended to influence the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, the company has rolled out a number of changes designed to both proactively prevent the presence of such bad actors on the site, and better identify the harmful content they might publish.

Most recently, these changes include a strong focus on transparency regarding ads to help provide greater context around who pays for them and why they're being displayed for a given user. On top of that, users can also flag content they deem inappropriate or in violation of Facebook's policies. 

But many of the Representatives who questioned Zuckerberg today -- as well as their constituents, they said -- believe this system is flawed. 

That's manifested in several ways, such as users reporting content that's in violation of Facebook's policies yet remains intact despite numerous flags. Representative Gus Bilirakis shared one example of his constituents taking this action around some content, noting that it wasn't until his office intervened that it was ultimately removed.

Zuckerberg attributed this instance on an "enforcement error" on the part of the content reviewer responsible for that particular item.

But Representatives pressed Zuckerberg on this topic and the questions it evokes about Facebook's overall take on accountability.

Representative Bill Johnson asked how those who make these mistakes -- like missing content that should be flagged as inappropriate or inaccurately flagging content as such that isn't actually in violation -- are held responsible.

Asking if anyone at Facebook has ever been fired over these mistakes, Zuckerberg answered, "I'm sure we have."

But as Johnson's question suggests, mistakes in content review go both ways. In addition to missing content that should be flagged, many Representatives aired their grievances with Facebook's removal of ads and brands from its platform that, while controversial, may not have necessarily been in direct conflict of its policies.

Most notably among the grievances aired by some Representatives was Facebook's censoring of video personality duo, Diamond and Silk -- who received a message from Facebook last week describing their content as "unsafe to the community." 

And while many Representatives cited the censoring of Diamond and Silk of one of Facebook's more salient examples of censuring content creators without a full explanation, Representative Billy Long was particularly glib -- holding up a photo of the pair and asking Zuckerberg just what, exactly, was dangerous about it.

"Nothing is unsafe about that,” Zuckerberg answered.

But in terms of content that should be flagged and yet seems to appear in abundance on Facebook, certain Representatives were gravely concerned with ads for drugs, pointing specifically to the U.S. opioid crisis that they say these ads aggravate.

Many of them asked Zuckerberg if these drugs are sold on Facebook, and after hearing the CEO say no, pressed him for a better explanation as to why ads for them continued to appear throughout the site anyway -- ads that, it seems, are in violation of Facebook policies.

Zuckerberg was unable to directly answer this question, often defaulting to explaining how the ads review process works and blaming a lack of finely tuned AI tools for not being able to identify and remove this content more efficiently. At yesterday's Senate hearing, Zuckerberg also pointed to AI tools as crucial to the company's efforts to remove much of the negative information in question, like hate speech or propaganda.

Far-Reaching Data Collection

Today's hearing marked a pivotal moment for Zuckerberg's time in D.C. At one point, he admitted that he was one of the 87 million users whose data was compromised or improperly obtained by Cambridge Analytica.

Many Representatives had more questions -- in addition to those from yesterday's Senate hearing -- about the detailed nature of the data collected and used by Facebook. Again, many lawmakers wanted to know what happens to a user's data after he or she deletes a Facebook account, and what could happen to it if it came into the possession of a third party before leaving the platform.

With regard to the third parties, Zuckerberg reiterated Facebook's ongoing investigation and audit of any and all apps that ever collected user data, to determine which still have personally identifiable information (PII) in their possession and of that data was sold or improperly obtained to other parties.

But Representatives also had questions about the tracking of internet users when they're not using Facebook, asking if their activity is monitored or recorded by the company when browsing other sites outside of the social network.

Eventually, Zuckerberg did admit that Facebook collects some data on user activity elsewhere on the web, even if they aren't signed into Facebook. Many sites, for example, have Facebook tools installed that allow users to "Like" the content by way of the traditional Facebook method, even if they aren't logged into or users of the platform.

As for how many pages have this feature -- or use Pixel, Facebook's embeddable code that can be used to measure ad campaign conversions -- Zuckerberg couldn't provide a specific number.

In those cases, he said, some data is collected on those users for what he called "security purposes," but didn't go into specifics. (It's worth noting here that each Representative was only allotted four minutes for questioning, often leaving them unable to push Zuckerberg for more information.)

But some Representatives had questions about the full extent of Facebook's user tracking activity throughout the web, and not just on its own site. Representative Jerry McNerney, for example, noted that when members of his staff downloaded their data files, it didn't include browsing history or non-Facebook online activity.

Zuckerberg explained why, in the form of a statement correction he issued late in the hearing's proceedings. Weblogs, he said -- the logs of tracked user activity -- are not included in the "download your information" files and are only kept temporarily, to measure what ad topics a user might be interested in.

Those ad topics appear in the data download. 

Regulation (Again)

Although it didn't come up quite as much as it did in yesterday's Senate hearing, several Representatives broached the topic of regulation. Representative Fred Upton was one of the first to bring it up, asking Zuckerberg that if Facebook were to be federally regulated, what kind of regulation would he want?

In short, Zuckerberg answered that there are many "things that need to be thought through very carefully [before] we think about what [policies] to put in place."

But when regulation was addressed, the conversation drew a fairly stark party line on which Representatives somewhat staunchly remain on either side.

Representative Jan Schakowsky was particularly vocal about her desire for regulation, reading off a list of Zuckerberg's apologies for errors in judgment dating back to 2003 (a similar list was published by the Washington Post prior to the hearings), stating: "This is proof to me that self-regulation simply does not work."

Schakowsky was also quick to point out that, judging from Zuckerberg's responses to his questions about the General Data Privacy Regulation (GDPR), which comes into force next month, it doesn't seem like the Facebook version of self-regulation on data privacy would be "an exact replica" of the looming E.U. laws.

It brought up a remark Zuckerberg made during yesterday's Senate hearings, where when asked if he thinks the E.U. got data privacy "right," hesitantly answered, "I think they get some things right."

Representative Scott Peters today asked Zuckerberg to elaborate on that -- and explain what he thinks the GDPR gets right, and what it gets wrong. And while Zuckerberg said he thinks the European regulations will generally be "very positive" for internet users, he would need more time to think about what they might be getting wrong.

Toward the end of the hearing, another representative revisited Schakowsky's remarks -- specifically, her question: "Who is going to protect us from Facebook?" Representative Chris Collins claimed the question was "aggressive" and "out of bounds," going on to say that when asked if he agreed with the idea of regulating Facebook, "I said no."

At the end of the day, several questions still remain unanswered, many of which Zuckerberg was unable to come up with responses to in the course of the hearing, which Representative Debbie Dingell was quick to point out.

But Wait. There's More.

But even where Zuckerberg did provide responses beyond "I don't know," or "I'm not aware" -- which were frequently followed with responses to have his team follow up in writing -- many of the key issues brought up over the course of the past two days remain in limbo.

For example, it still isn't entirely clear just who, if anyone, is improperly in possession of Facebook user data. And we still aren't sure if or how Facebook will further revise its terms and policies to give users the control and clarity Zuckerberg so vehemently said in these hearings he wants users to have.

But above all, what's yet to be determined is the outcome of these hearings: and to what extent, if any, this questioning and testimony will have a lasting impact and lead to stricter guidelines for Facebook -- and its Big Tech cohorts -- including government regulation.

Before that can happen, I suspect more hearings need to take place. Before this week's events took place, there was word of wishes among lawmakers to have the CEOs of Google and Twitter appear before Congress, as well. And what was made clear in today's hearing especially is that, despite its massive reach, Facebook is hardly alone in confusing and sometimes questionable data practices.

I would not be surprised if Zuckerberg is asked to appear before Congress again -- if for no other reason, to undergo further questioning not just about data privacy, but about its possible role in influencing the 2016 U.S. presidential election. A Special Counsel investigation into overall election interference is still underway, for which Zuckerberg said in yesterday's hearing someone from Facebook was questioned. The testimony, it seems, is far from over.

And as it continues to unfold -- for Facebook and beyond -- I'll be watching. In the meantime, I, along with my esteemed colleagues, will continue to think about all of these possible repercussions impact the marketing industry and the people who use Facebook, among other social media tools, in their lines of work.

Want more? Check out my Twitter feed from the week's events.