During Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s ballyhooed two days of congressional testimony last week, two things quickly became clear: One, Congress is interested in regulating Facebook, and two, it is woefully unprepared for the task.
But Facebook—along with Google and Apple—have become so powerful, and user privacy so compromised, that lawmakers have no choice. They must educate themselves, and fast, before these giants become uncontrollable. Facebook’s drive to vacuum up data and conquer the online market is relentless.
Most members of Congress who questioned Zuckerberg on Tuesday and Wednesday showed themselves to be just as clueless about the potential privacy dangers as most of the 68 percent of American adults who have Facebook accounts.
Facebook acknowledges that 87 million users had data improperly acquired in 2016 by the British research firm Cambridge Analytica. The data played into the Trump campaign’s effort to build voter profiles and target users ahead of the 2016 election.
That disclosure, along with earlier revelations that Russian hackers had used Facebook accounts to sow division among voters before the election, made even some regulation-averse Republicans realize that big internet firms have grown too powerful.
In the hearing last Tuesday, Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., got closest to the heart of the matter. Durbin got Zuckerberg to admit he’d prefer not to disclose personal information such as the hotel he stayed in the night before and to whom he’d sent messages—information that Facebook routinely collects from its users.
Graham suggested that Facebook was a monopoly and had spent a lot of money buying out its competition. The government traditionally regulates monopolies, he warned. Zuckerberg responded, “I think the real question … is what’s the right regulation? Not whether there should be or not.”
With something called the Honest Ads Act, Congress would require Facebook to disclose, as broadcasters must, who pays for political ads. With the proposed Consent Act introduced last week, Congress would require Facebook users to explicitly consent to having personal information shared with third parties. The Federal Trade Commission would enforce the rules.
Zuckerberg would rather Facebook police itself and voluntarily enforce disclosure rules similar to those in the Honest Ads Act. In Europe, it supports consent rules similar to those proposed in Congress. In principle, Zuckerberg said, he’d support the same rules in the United States, “but details matter a lot.”
Some tech experts believe the simplest and most effective way to address the issue would be to impose a fiduciary responsibility on internet companies to act in the user’s best interests. States could do this on their own, with courts deciding when ethical requirements have been breached.
Congress is a dysfunctional place these days. A complicated subject like internet regulation might be beyond its abilities. So perhaps the simplest solution is best, and quickest.
—St. Louis Post-Dispatch