Today, the House Energy and Commerce Committee confirmed that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg will indeed testify in front of the congressional committee on April 11.
His testimony is rooted in the ongoing controversy over Facebook’s handling of its users’ data, which became the subject of global news after it was revealed that personal information was misused by data consulting firm, Cambridge Analytica.
Facebook’s Removal of Fake Accounts by the IRA
Recent action by Facebook, however, is sure to influence the content of Zuckerberg's hearing -- most notably its removal of more than 270 fake Facebook pages and accounts managed by the Internet Research Agency (IRA).
This Russian firm is suspected to have influenced a number of foreign political elections, including the 2016 U.S. Presidential election.
“Since , we have improved our techniques to prevent nation states from interfering in foreign elections,” Zuckerberg wrote on Facebook yesterday. “There have been a number of important elections since then where [our new artificial intelligence tools] have been successfully deployed.”
The Silicon Valley giant cited countries like France and Germany as governments with which his team has worked to remove the IRA’s Facebook presence in these communities.
Awaiting a Position on Europe’s New Privacy Law
But these examples could prove to work against him in Congress. In an interview with Reuters, Zuckerberg agreed “in spirit” to a new law in the European Union that will renovate online privacy standards across Europe. He did not reveal Facebook’s goals on this front for the rest of the world.
That law is the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the most significant update to the continent’s privacy policies in the last three decades -- making the CEO’s lack of comment on its benefit to Facebook's global user base a likely topic of conversation on April 11.
But Facebook is admittedly not the only Big Tech in the Bay Area to stay silent on the topic of the EU’s data privacy laws. Google and its parent company, Alphabet Inc., are two others that have not taken a stance on how this law might be able to support global users.
What This Could Mean for Facebook (and Advertisers)
Why the hesitation? One possibility is that the GDPR -- which Facebook is required to implement for its EU-based users when it comes into force next month -- could limit the company’s revenue from ads. That will become especially true if advertisers feel, for example, they can’t use certain user data to target customers’ News Feeds as accurately.
"Facebook's whole business model is centered on user data for accurate ad targeting," says Henry Franco, HubSpot's social campaign strategy associate, "so it’s no surprise that it might be against government intervention in the way companies are required to manage that data for users in the EU."
But the damage done by users potentially leaving the platform entirely could be a greater hit to the company if it doesn’t take a position on its global markets soon. At this point, the value of Facebook's shares is down more than 15% since the revelation around Cambridge Analytica came to light on March 16.
Zuckerberg did clarify that many of the tools belonging to the GDPR are already available to all Facebook users -- so these risks are likely top-of-mind for the executive. But nonetheless, Washington is both grateful and eagerly anticipating Zuckerberg’s appearance before the House of Representatives next week.
“This hearing will be an important opportunity to shed light on critical consumer data privacy issues and help all Americans better understand what happens to their personal information online,” said Committee Chairman Greg Walden and Ranking Member Frank Pallone, Jr. in the official statement. “We appreciate Mr. Zuckerberg’s willingness to testify before the committee, and we look forward to him answering our questions on April 11th.”
But Facebook looks to be making some of these pieces more iron-clad leading up to the testimony, including the rewriting of its terms of service and data policy that was unveiled earlier today -- which could leave these existing rules less open to interpretation or questioning by lawmakers.
"As a company, Facebook is probably reading the writing on the wall," says Franco. "If data regulation is on the horizon, it wants to have a seat at the table for that conversation, in order to protect its own interests."
We’ll be reporting on this ongoing story up to and after the hearing next week.