Ctrl: Zuckerberg Goes to Congress

Caio Brighenti, Maroon-News Staff

I don’t like Facebook. If you saw my last column on Facebook and Zuckerberg a few weeks ago, that was probably pretty apparent. I’d much rather write about cool stuff like virtual reality or artificial intelligence, but once again Zuckerberg has forced my hand, so here we are.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock or hate memes, you’ve almost certainly heard something about Zuckerberg testifying in front of Congress this past week. While the memes were wonderful, what actually happened was far more worrisome than they’d make you think. We have a serious problem: the people in charge of running this country don’t really understand Facebook. I’ll go through some examples of the strange, confusing and out-of-touch questions Zuckerberg was asked.

Texas Senator Ted Cruz put his foot down and made a strong point when he grilled Zuckerberg, questioning why “Facebook has … shut down the Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day page,” in an attempt to suggest Facebook has an anti-conservative bias. Frankly, I for one have had trouble sleeping since the Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day page went down, and am glad someone is finally tackling the issues that plague this country.

Other questions contrasted with Cruz’s odd specificity by being so general that no one, including the senators asking them, knew what they meant. Senator Deb Fischer from Nebraska did some impressive on-the-fly math and concluded that Facebook generates 192 billion “data categories” at “any given time,” and asked how many of those Facebook stores. I’m not entirely sure how she reached that conclusion, or what “data categories” even means, and clearly neither was Zuckerberg.

There were also a few innocent confused comments that made me chuckle. In no particular order, here are a few that need no explanation. Senator Lindsey Graham asked, “Is Twitter the same as what you do?” – a question that could likely be resolved with a 45 second Google search. Senator Brian Schatz asked, “If I’m emailing within WhatsApp, does that inform your advertisers?” Senator Thom Tillis had a very wholesome moment, proclaiming he’s a “proud member of Facebook” as he waved his device at Zuckerberg, showing a post from his sister about it being National Sibling Day.

While I’m obviously light-heartedly poking fun at many of these well-intentioned questions, there was also cause for serious concern. The best example of this is Senator Orrin Hatch’s question, asking how Facebook is able to sustain its business model when their users don’t pay for the service. Zuckerberg simply replied “Senator, we run ads.” Therein lies our problem. 

The management of data privacy is clearly a massive issue, and is going to remain that way for the years to come.

Stories like Cambridge Analytica’s data scandal and the European Union’s new data protection regulation have dominated tech news, and rightfully so. It’s obvious that changes need to be made, and regulations need to be imposed on the industry, but how is that going to happen effectively if the people in charge are asking questions like these? Not knowing how Facebook makes its money is frankly unacceptable for anyone involved in the regulatory process. I mean seriously, if there’s one thing you should know it’s how the billionaire you’re questioning made his money. 

If you’re also somehow out of the loop, I’ll make it pretty clear: Facebook is an advertisement company. The service they provide is ads, not a social network. You are not Facebook’s target consumer; whatever advertiser you’re seeing when you’re on the platform is. They hand Facebook money, you don’t. This isn’t even some conspiracy or contested issue, just visit Facebook.com/business and see their pitch for yourself if you don’t believe me. 

It’s seriously disheartening that senators tasked with tackling these issues lack basic information like this. I’m not even sure what we as citizens can do. For now, the best we can do is inform ourselves, demand the same of our representatives and hope they follow suit. If they don’t, we’re essentially relinquishing regulatory control to the industry itself, and we all know what happens when industries self-regulate.

Contact Caio Brighenti at [email protected].