In much-anticipated testimony before a Senate committee amid anger over the sale of the personal data of 87 million users, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg admitted to lawmakers Tuesday he hasn’t done enough to prevent his global social-media platform from being used “for harm.”
Zuckerberg, 33, told a joint Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committee hearing he leads an “idealistic and optimistic company” that serves some 2 billion people around the world.
“For most of our existence, we focused on all the good that connecting people can bring,” he said of the company he launched in 2004 from his Harvard dorm room.
“But it’s clear now that we didn’t do enough to prevent these tools from being used for harm as well,” Zuckerberg confessed in prepared remarks. “That goes for fake news, foreign interference in elections, and hate speech, as well as developers and data privacy.
“We didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibility, and that was a big mistake. It was my mistake, and I’m sorry. I started Facebook, I run it, and I’m responsible for what happens here.”
Zuckerberg also is scheduled to testify Wednesday before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Rex Lee, a tech insider who has researched how the tech giants handle privacy, says the business model can be summed up as “surveillance capitalism.” He told WND in an interview the model amounts to the use of deceptive user agreements and practices that enable companies to exploit personal information for financial gain.
Lee has provided his information to the staffs of Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and others ahead of Zuckerberg’s testimony.
Blumenthal echoed Lee’s description of the problem to reporters Tuesday morning, declaring Facebook must “abandon” its “business model.”
“Consumers now have to be specifically informed and their consent definitely and clearly given,” the senator said. “The business model of Facebook, which is to monetize and share and sell information – without full knowledge and consent from users – has to be abandoned.”
At the Senate hearing, Zuckerberg addressed the sale of users’ personal data to the British consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, which was used by the Trump campaign in the 2016 to target voters. Barack Obama also used Facebook for his 2012 campaign.
The Facebook CEO said in his prepared remarks that he and his colleagues have been “working to understand exactly what happened with Cambridge Analytica and taking steps to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
One of the steps taken to “safeguard” the platform, he said, is “requiring developers to not only get approval but also to sign a contract that imposes strict requirements in order to ask anyone for access to their posts or other private data.”
But privacy isn’t the only worry regarding Facebook.
Sen. Cruz asked Zuckerberg about the concern of many Americans that Facebook is “engaged in a pervasive pattern of bias and political censorship.”
See video of Ted Cruz questioning Mark Zuckerberg about Facebook’s censorship of conservative voices:
Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., told Zuckerberg he had deep reservations about the Facebook CEO’s intent to “police” speech, noting that opposition to abortion might be censored on the basis of hurting people’s feelings or making them feel “unsafe.”
Establishment media have received a massive boost in Facebook engagement since a Jan. 11 algorithm change, while conservative media has sharply declined, according to independent social media analysis reported by Breitbart.
Last week in Michigan, a state Senate candidate attempted to use Facebook’s paid boost function to announce his campaign, Detroit News columnist Nolan Finley pointed out.
His message: “I’m proud to announce my candidacy for State Senate. Lansing needs conservative, West Michigan values, and as our next State Senator, I will work to strengthen our economy, limit government, lower our auto insurance rates, balance the budget, stop sanctuary cities, pay down government debt and be a Pro-Life, Pro-Second Amendment (lawmaker).”
Facebook notified him the content of his ad “wasn’t approved because it doesn’t follow our Advertising Policies. We don’t allow ads that contain shocking, disrespectful or sensational content, including ads that depict violence or threats of violence.”
In his prepared testimony, Zuckerberg also addressed “Russian election interference,” acknowledging Facebook was targeted by a “disinformation campaign” run by the Internet Research Agency, a Russian agency.
In response to a direct question from Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., he acknowledged that Facebook is “working” with special counsel Robert Mueller’s team investigating alleged Trump campaign collusion with Russia. He offered no further details, saying he didn’t want to violate any confidentiality agreements.
Among the fixes for foreign interference in elections, Zuckerberg said, is to build more advanced artificial intelligence tools “to remove fake accounts.”
But that solution also has become a problem, because what Facebook defines as “fake news” may be what a conservative voice defines simply as uncomfortable truths.
In December 2016, Facebook began outsourcing judgment on “questionable” news items to fact-checking media outlets Snopes, ABC News, PolitiFact, Factcheck.org and the Associated Press. The outlets were given the authority to bury “disputed” content down users’ news feeds. Last summer, Zuckerberg announced a plan to hire 3,000 new employees over the next year to join a team of 4,500 fact-checkers to monitor content. In addition, a user-driven system allows for objectionable content to be flagged and removed.
On Tuesday morning, Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., said he fears the Zuckerberg hearings could lead to further government regulation of the Internet.
“I think it treads on some very tenuous ground, the senator told the Fox News Channel’s “America’s Newsroom.” “There may be some people who wish to look at the opportunity to have regulation of the Internet. Regulation over speech. Regulation over content. I’m very concerned about that and I think that’s the alarming part about the direction that questions could take this afternoon.”
In his opening remarks at the hearing, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., indicated Gardner’s fears are warranted.
“If Facebook and other online companies will not, or cannot, fix the privacy invasions, then we are going to have to,” Nelson said.
Zuckerberg later opened the door to regulation, saying he would welcome it “if it’s the right regulation.”
‘Policing the ecosystem’
Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, asked why Facebook doesn’t fully inform users of all the potential uses of their data.
Zuckerberg said “long privacy policies are very confusing,” and Facebook wants to make it simpler for the benefit of users.
“We don’t expect people will want to go through and read a full legal document,” he said.
Zuckerberg said that over the years, he has “learned that it’s not enough just to build tools.”
“We need to make sure they’re used for good,” he said.
“That means that we need to now take a more active view in policing the ecosystem and in watching and kind of looking out that all of the members in our community are going to be using these tools in a way that is good and healthy,” said Zuckerberg.
The Facebook CEO was asked what steps Facebook is taking regarding “hate speech.”
He said that by the end of the year, more than 20,000 employees will be working on “content review.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., asked what is being done to prevent “foreign actors” from influencing elections.
Zuckerberg said that since the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Facebook is doing a better job of detecting fake accounts through artificial intelligence.
He cited success in the French and German elections, for example, but said Facebook is in an “arms race.”
“They (the foreign actors) are going to keep getting better at this, and we are going to invest in getting better, too,” he said.
Cruz presses on political bias
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, opened his five minutes of questioning by noting Facebook executives have given conflicting answers about whether the company is a “First Amendment speaker” expressing a particular viewpoint or a “neutral public forum allowing everyone to speak.”
Zuckerberg eventually identified Facebook as a neutral forum after explaining it doesn’t allow certain kinds of speech, such as “hate speech,” terrorist propaganda, nudity or “anything that makes people feel unsafe in the community.”
Cruz explained there are “a great number of Americans who are deeply concerned that Facebook and other tech companies are engaged in a pervasive pattern of bias and political censorship.”
The senator noted that Gizmodo in May 2015 reported Facebook had routinely and purposefully suppressed conservative stories from trending news, including stories about the Conservative Political Action Conference, Mitt Romney and the Lois Lerner IRS scandal.
Cruz also pointed out that Facebook shut down a Chick-fil-A appreciation page, and blocked a post of a Fox News reporter and more than two dozen Catholic pages.
Most recently, he said, Facebook blocked the page of Trump supporters Diamond and Silk, who have 1.2 million followers, after determining their content and brand were “unsafe to the community.”
“To a great many Americans that appears to be a pervasive pattern of political bias,” Cruz said. “Do you agree with that assessment?
Zuckerberg replied he understands “where that concern is coming from, because Facebook and the tech industry are located in Silicon Valley, which is an extremely left-leaning place.”
“This is actually a concern that I have that I try to root out in the company, is making sure that we don’t have any bias in the work that we do. And I think it is a fair concern that people would wonder about,” he said.
Cruz then asked Zuckerberg if he was aware of Facebook removing any ad or page from Planned Parenthood, MoveOn.org or a Democratic candidate for office.
Zuckerberg said he was not “specifically aware.”
Cruz asked if he was aware of the political orientation of the 20,000 people assigned to review Facebook content.
“No, senator, we do not generally ask people about their political orientation when they are joining the company.”
See Sen. Ben Sasse question Mark Zuckerberg:
What is ‘hate speech’?
Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., expressed concern about Zuckerberg’s intent to “police more speech,” based on the premise of “safety and protection.”
“I worry when you go from violent speech to hate speech in a hurry,” said Sasse.
The senator pointed out that pollsters found 40 percent of Americans under age 35 believe the First Amendment is dangerous because someone might use their freedom to hurt someone’s feelings.
Sasse noted there are many people who are passionately opposed to abortion.
“Can you imagine a world,” the senator asked, “where you might decide that pro-lifers are prohibited from speaking about their abortion views on your platform?”
Zuckerberg replied: “I certainly would not want that to be the case.”
Sasse added: “But it might really be unsettling to people who have had an abortion to have an open debate about that, wouldn’t it?”
“It might be, but I don’t think that would fit any of the definitions of what we have,” Zuckerberg said.
“But I do generally agree with the point that you’re making. As we’re able to technologically assist, especially toward having AI (artificial intelligence) proactively look at content, I think that’s going to create massive questions for society about what obligations we want to require companies to fulfill.”
Sasse said he wouldn’t want Zuckerberg “to leave here today and think that there’s sort of a unified view in Congress that you should be moving toward policing more and more and more speech.”
“I think violence has no place on your platform. Sex traffickers and human traffickers have no place on your platform. But vigorous debates? Adults need to engage in vigorous debates.”