Social Media Data Regulation Appears Likely After Zuckerberg Testimony

NEWS ANALYSIS: House and Senate lawmakers voiced support for data privacy regulations even after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg apologized for mistakes that allowed Cambridge Analytics to gain access to millions of users’ profile data.

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After nine hours of hearings and questions from approximately one hundred Members of Congress, Facebook CEO and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg escaped with his life, but he may have brought regulation of social media closer to reality. 

Zuckerberg was the sole witness at a joint hearing by the Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees on April 10 and a separate hearing by the House Commerce Committee on 11. 

Zuckerberg’s themes were the same each time. He started Facebook in his dorm room at Harvard and made many mistakes as he built up the social network. But he said he is responsible for it operations and wanted congress to know that Facebook is an idealistic and optimistic enterprise that cares of about its users.

During his testimony, Zuckerberg announced that his was one of the Facebook profiles that was sold to Cambridge Analytica, the UK political analysis firm that bought some 87 million misappropriated profiles from a researcher. He admitted that Facebook is working with Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and he announced that Facebook has purged itself of the Russian Internet Research Agency and a bunch of fake accounts created by that Russian Internet propaganda operation. 

But despite Zuckerberg’s contrition before the congressional committees and his promises to do better, it’s apparent from lawmakers’ questions that a next step will be to consider legislation to boost social media users’ privacy protections. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) pointedly asked Zuckerberg why Facebook should be allowed to self-regulate. 

Then Graham asked Zuckerberg if he would submit to the committees what he thinks would be appropriate regulations for governing the protection of user data. Zuckerberg said that he would. Then he asked Zuckerberg whether he would support such regulations. “If it’s the right regulation, yes,” Zuckerberg replied. 

The theme of regulation appeared from all sides and in both houses of Congress during the hearings. In response to some ideas for regulations protecting privacy, Zuckerberg said that could support such regulation in principle, but added that the details draft regulatory legislation will matter a lot. 

The most specific discussion of regulations began with Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) who asked Zuckerberg, “Do you believe European regulations should be applied here in the U.S.?” 

Zuckerberg revealed that Facebook would roll out the controls and protections required by Europe’s GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) world-wide. “So I think it's certainly worth discussing whether we should have something similar in the U.S. But what I would like to say today is that we're going to go forward and implement that, regardless of what the regulatory outcome is,” he said. 

The reference to the GDPR was brought up again in the House Commerce Committee hearing when Rep. Al Green (R-TX) asked Zuckerberg whether Facebook would make the settings for the GDPR available to American users, and whether it would offer the same level of protections. 

Zuckerberg replied that Facebook is already meeting most of the requirements of the GDPR. “The GDPR requires a few more things, and we’ll make that available around the world,” he said. 

A closely related topic during the hearings was Facebook’s terms and conditions, which are contained in a document that describes what Facebook can do with user data. Sen. Graham held up a two-inch thick stack of paper that he said was a printed copy of the complete terms and conditions. He asked Zuckerberg whether anyone had ever read it. “I don't think that the average person likely reads that whole document,” Zuckerberg said. 

Adding emphasis to that point, Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) pointed out that he means Facebook no ill will, saying, “I come in peace,” then he added, “Here's what everybody's been trying to tell you today—and I say this gently. Your user agreement sucks.” 

Much of the privacy related outrage was related to the Cambridge Analytica data breach. Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) said that she was distressed that Facebook had been weaponized and asked Zuckerberg if he thought Facebook had a moral responsibility to protect democracy. Zuckerberg said he did. 

Then Eshoo asked whether Zuckerberg’s personal data was included in the Cambridge Analytica breach. Zuckerberg said it was. 

An important difference between the hearings in the House and Senate is that the questioners in the House hearing had mostly done their homework. A number of the representatives said that they had degrees in computer science or had worked as programmers or in data management. 

The result of that difference was clear. Many of the questions in the Senate revealed only limited understanding of what Facebook was or how it did business and the resulting questions were sometimes inane. 

Zuckerberg stated that Facebook doesn’t sell user data and that users will always be able to access the social network for free. However, Sen. Oren Hatch (R-UT) asked Zuckerberg, “how do you sustain a business model in which users don't pay for your service?” 

“Senator, we run ads,” Zuckerberg Responded. 

In the House the questions were mostly well-informed, and it was clear that most of the committee members understood how user data could be misused. Furthermore House committee members mostly realized that Facebook doesn’t sell its users’ data. 

During the hearings, calls for regulation of networks like Facebook was as strong among House committee members as it had been in the Senate hearing. There was discussion of Facebook’s 2011 Consent Decree and questions about which agency would be best prepared to provide oversight to companies such as Facebook. 

Several Members of Congress revealed that they were working on bills to regulate Facebook and other social media services in some aspect of their operations and statements of philosophical objections to such government regulation were rare. 

It seems clear that if Zuckerberg has done nothing else, he’s cemented a non-partisan movement that will lead to such regulation. Perhaps they’ll even name the bill after him.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...