After 2 Days of Congressional Hearings, What's Next for Facebook?
The world learned a few new things during Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's second day of congressional testimony on Wednesday. One, Zuckerberg revealed he was among the 87 million Facebook users whose data was improperly accessed by the political consultancy Cambridge Analytica. And, two, Wall Street investors feel pretty positive about both Zuckerberg's performance and Facebook's continued business prospects.
After five hours of answering questions before a joint Senate committee hearing Tuesday, the social media giant co-founder spent another five hours yesterday being grilled by the House Energy and Commerce Committee. A number of observers described yesterday's session as tougher than the previous day's, but that didn't seem to hurt Facebook's stock value, which ended the day higher than it started.
Zuckerberg spent the past two days in Washington, D.C., following ongoing revelations about the role his platform played in manipulating and misleading voters ahead of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, as well as its use by bad actors spreading hate speech and fake news. At the center of much of the questioning he faced was Cambridge Analytica, the U.K.-based firm that worked for President Donald Trump's campaign, during which that company reportedly misused the personal information of millions of Facebook users.
A 'Superstructure for Political Discourse'
Zuckerberg began his testimony yesterday in much the same way he did during Tuesday's appearance before a joint meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee and Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. He described Facebook as an "idealistic and optimistic company . . . focused on all the good that connecting people can bring." He also acknowledged that in the past his platform has not done enough to prevent "fake news, foreign interference in elections and hate speech," and apologized, taking personal responsibility for those failures.
Since the 2016 election, Facebook has made a number of changes to address those concerns, Zuckerberg told House committee members. At one point, he noted, "After we were slow to identify the Russian information operations in 2016, this has become a top priority for our company -- to prevent that from ever happening again, especially this year, in 2018, which is such an important election year with the U.S. midterms, but also major elections in India, Brazil, Mexico, Hungary, Pakistan and a number of other places."
Using new tools powered by artificial intelligence, Facebook has become better at identifying fake accounts used by bad actors in Russia or elsewhere to spread misinformation, Zuckerberg added. While noting that his platform does not allow hate groups, he acknowledged it is "not doing a good enough job" at managing content to reflect different social norms and customs around the world.
Several committee members asked about Facebook's policies on political speech in particular, with Republicans focused on whether it stifled or silenced conservative voices and Democrats expressing concern about the edge that Cambridge Analytica's actions gave the Trump campaign.
"I think a lot of Americans are waking up to the fact that Facebook is becoming sort of a self-regulated superstructure for political discourse," said Rep. John Sarbanes (D, Maryland). "And the question is, are we, the people, going to regulate our political dialogue? Or are you, Mark Zuckerberg, going to end up regulating the political discourse?"
New Regulations Coming . . . in Europe
With Zuckerberg's appearances on Capitol Hill now over, the question hanging over Facebook is whether the company and others in the tech industry could face new regulations. Even some Republicans who typically favor a free market are expressing support for tighter restrictions on the industry.
"I don't want to vote to have to regulate Facebook, but by God I will," Sen. John Kennedy (R, Louisiana) told Zuckerberg Tuesday, adding that he believed the platform's user agreement "sucks."
"You can go back home, spend $10 million on lobbyists and fight us or you can go back home and help us solve this problem and they're two," he said. "One is a privacy problem the other one is what I call a propaganda problem."
While Washington appears unlikely to pass any new data privacy or security regulations in the near term given the current political atmosphere, Facebook and other technology companies with users in Europe will soon have to comply with new controls from the European Union.
Aimed at giving people more control over the data that is collected, stored, and used about them, the EU's General Data Protection Regulation goes into effect in May and will apply to any business, in any location, that handles personal information about EU citizens.
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