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5 Recurring Themes From Mark Zuckerberg's Senate Hearing

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg appeared this afternoon before a joint hearing held by the Senate Judiciary and Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committees.

The hearing, officially titled “Facebook, Social Media Privacy, and the Use and Abuse of Data,” was created largely in response to March revelations that voter profiling firm Cambridge Analytica improperly obtained and misused personal user data. The data was obtained when University of Cambridge researcher Dr. Aleksandr Kogan developed an app, “thisisyourdigitallife,” that scraped the personal data of myriad Facebook users.

Among other pieces of information to emerge today, Zuckerberg confirmed that Kogan actually sold this data to other firms beyond Cambridge Analytica, including Eunoia Technologies: the company founded by whistleblower Chris Wylie, who once worked for Cambridge Analytica but left to start this company.

But the data breach, as it was largely dubbed today, wasn’t just limited to those who downloaded the app — many friends of users who did also had their personal data scraped, which amounted to Facebook’s total estimated 87 million people whose information was improperly obtained. Facebook began alerting affected users this morning with in-app displays.

It was the first of two Congressional hearings for Zuckerberg this week, with a second scheduled to take place tomorrow morning with the House Energy and Commerce Committee. 

Several key points were repeated today by Zuckerberg and Senators alike, some of which were revealed when photographers snapped a look at the notes the former left open and visible during hearing breaks.

Here were the key points made in today's hearings. Prefer a quick visual rundown? Check out the video recap below.

 

5 Recurring Themes From Mark Zuckerberg's Senate Hearing

1. Mea Culpa

For anyone who's been following the story so far, much of what was discussed at today's hearing was not exactly new. Zuckerberg's opening remarks appeared to be borrowed directly from the written testimony submitted for tomorrow's House hearing, and many of his responses seemed to be rooted in a handful of key themes that have recurred throughout Facebook's response over the past three and a half weeks.

Among these is an ongoing self-admittance of wrongdoing on Zuckerberg's part, with him stating at one point, "I started Facebook, I run it, and I’m responsible for what happens here."

But this apology and acceptance of accountability set the tone for many of the Senators' questions today, including Senator Cortez Masto who bluntly told Zuckerberg, "Stop apologizing. Let's make the change."

While many of the joint committee members weren't quite as tough on Zuckerberg as might have been expected, many of them attempted to base their queries on flaws made in the explanations and statements that have emerged since the Cambridge Analytica story first broke. Senator Kamala Harris, for example, asked Zuckerberg if he was part of the decision not to notify users that their data may have been compromised when it first learned of the possible misuse in 2015. 

Zuckerberg could not provide a clear answer to that question, stating that he does not remember such a conversation. When Harris further pressed him to clarify whether that conversation never took place at all or if he simply wasn't part of it, he still was unable to directly answer, further blaming a lack of memory of any such discussion. 

Members of the press also identified gaps in Zuckerberg's claims and statements made today. For example, he repeatedly claimed that one change Facebook would make is further clarifying its terms and conditions to make it more concise, because he didn't think most users would take the time to read such a lengthy document. (More on that below).

But as Slate reporter Will Oremus was quick to remind, Facebook already has the capacity to measure exactly how long Facebook users spend looking at any given post -- raising the question of why it doesn't know (or reveal) how long users look at the terms they're asked to consent to.

2. "Facebook Does Not Sell User Data"

Zuckerberg vehemently emphasized today that Facebook does not sell data to third parties, which he has been doing throughout many statements made since the Cambridge Analytica data misuse was first revealed.

However, Facebook's monetization of data continued to be a key point among the questioning Senators, with many of them pushing Zuckerberg for an answer on how Facebook will be able to continue to be profitable without it.

But no one, including Zuckerberg himself, seemed to have a clear answer on how to strike a balance between Facebook's monetization model of creating targeted ads using non-identifiable personal user data, while also regulating user privacy. That led to the discussion of statements made in recent interviews with Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg -- where she indicated that a payment model might roll out to allow users to completely restrict their data from being used in this way, for a fee. 

Today, Zuckerberg did not provide an explicitly clear message on whether or not users will have to pay to opt out of having their data used to create targeted ads or an otherwise personalized experience.

3. The Terms of Service

Many questions arose during the hearing about ways to keep users better informed about how their data is collected and used, along with the general, overall clarity of Facebook's policies.

Facebook recently rewrote many of these policies and terms with the intention of making them clearer and easier to both understand and read, while also including the "nuances" of legality that Zuckerberg spoke to earlier today. In fact, Zuckerberg mentioned more than once that he does not believe most users read the entire Terms of Service [TOS] document.

For that reason, many Senators said, there's a fear that users don't exactly understand what, exactly, they're volunteering or opting into as a result to agreeing to these terms. It could be argued that this phenomenon is an underlying cause to the Cambridge Analytica scandal: that most users didn't completely understand that, by agreeing to the TOS, they were also granting permission to third-party apps to collect their personal data.

But one other item came up: that the terms of service for Kogan's app were in direct contradiction of Facebook's own terms, which the network seems to have overlooked at the time. To visualize this, Senator Richard Blumenthal displayed these contrasting terms in large print within the hearing room, calling this oversight "reckless."

4. Regulation

The moments when Zuckerberg seemed legitimately caught off-guard were few. One came when Senator Dick Durbin attempted to make a point about privacy and how much personal information people want to reveal, including Zuckerberg himself, when he asked the Facebook CEO if he would tell everyone where he was staying while in D.C.

The topic of regulation also came up a number of times, and at certain moment sparked debate, with more than one Senator asking Zuckerberg if he thinks that the European Union is moving in the right direction with the General Data Privacy Regulation (GDPR) coming into force next month.

Many of the tougher moments for Zuckerberg also came when asked about the regulation of Facebook. Zuckerberg repeatedly blamed Facebook's origins of having "started in my dorm room" on its reactive nature to such crises as weaponization and data misuse. It fell into that habit, he said, because AI tools weren't available at that time to combat many of the underlying problems, forcing Facebook into a vicious cycle of being less than proactive.

In previous interviews and closes sessions with the press, Zuckerberg has provided mixed answers to questions about his take on the GPDR, ranging from agreeing with it "in spirit" to subsequently remarking, "if we are planning on running the controls for GDPR across the world ... my answer [is] yes."

Today, Zuckerberg continued to give equally wavering responses to questions about the GDPR. When asked by Senator Lindsey Graham is he believes the European Union "got it right," he tentatively answered, "I think they get things right."

But there was some concern expressed about the possible impact of widespread regulation on smaller, emerging companies, from both certain Senators and Zuckerberg himself. When Senator Dan Sullivan expressed fears that such laws would "stifle ... the next Facebook," Zuckerberg responded, "That's the problem with regulation": that as a big company, Facebook has the resources to manage it, while more fledgling companies might not.

5. Dorm Room Origins

Much of the conversation around regulation stemmed from the repeated talk of Facebook's humble roots, into which Zuckerberg continuously leaned by reminding the joint committee members numerous times that he started the company "in my dorm room."

And at more than one point, he blamed these origins on Facebook's reactive nature to emerging crises -- the weaponization of it to spread divisive and false information, possibly influence elections, and other incidents leading up to the Cambridge Analytica revelations. 

The lack of AI tools available during Facebook's earliest days, Zuckerberg said, is part of what prevented Facebook from being able to detect many issues proactively. That not only includes the aforementioned weaponization, but also such problems as online bullying, promoting false advertising, and hate speech.

That caused Facebook to fall into a pattern of reactivity instead, said Zuckerberg, as well as his own misunderstanding of the company's role and responsibility as the network exponentially grew.

But now, with the help of the AI tools that Zuckerberg frequently said Facebook has come to rely upon, that proactivity is more feasible and becoming more ingrained. It was with the help of machine learning, for example, that Facebook accomplished many of its successes in combating weaponization following the 2016 U.S. presidential election, such as removing IRA accounts and other sources of misinformation leading up to elections in France and Alabama.

Hate speech, however, is a much bigger hurdle for which Zuckerberg does not see an immediately sustainable fix. Because this language is very "nuanced," the AI tools to detect it are not quite sophisticated enough to determine what's abusive or hate speech, and what's a strong statement of opinion. 

The rollout of that sophisticated AI, Zuckerberg predicts, could feasibly become available within the next five years.

Looking Ahead

Zuckerberg is due back on the Hill tomorrow for a hearing with the House Energy and Commerce Committee, where I expect to hear more about how he views the role of Facebook in the context of regulation and the purpose that the company serves. Its core nature as a business came up more than once today, with many wondering where exactly it falls: Tech, information aggregation, or media.

But today was a long day, and for anything that wasn't mentioned here, feel free to check out my Twitter account of the day's events.

I'm back on the Hill again tomorrow, too, and will continue to bring you these ongoing live developments.

Featured image credit: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik