Facebook is a Monster Too Big to Control

April 11, 2018

The CEO who started the year telling investors that 2018 would be all about making sure that Facebook “isn’t just fun to use, but also good for people’s well-being and for society,” has now assumed the manner and appearance of a post-toga-party penitent atoning for the way he trashed your parents’ basement.

Sombre suit. Pastel tie. Freshly trimmed hair cap. Mark Zuckerberg, the 33-year-old wunderkind looking now like a tired version of the 19-year-old undergrad who launched a social media revolution in his dorm room, told a joint U.S. Senate committee hearing Tuesday that he’s sorry, responsible and making corporate amends. Ill advisedly, he then offered a near recitation of previously supplied remarks that framed the company as “idealistic and optimistic” and working hard to be a “positive force in the world.”

In other words, he described a company that has yet to graduate from short pants, a company that as Zuckerberg himself testified has figured out privacy and policy issues “reactively,” or as others might say, on the go. Good news: with each and every passing day Facebook is getting better at that, including developing new AI tools that will do a better job of identifying fake accounts being used to identify false information.

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Four Questions Congress Should Actually Ask Mark Zuckerberg

Mark Zuckerberg testified for almost five hours Tuesday in a televised Senate hearing about Facebook’s privacy practices and data abuse. More than 40 Senators had five minutes each to ask questions. Zuckerberg’s most frequent response? “My team will follow up with you.” House members will have their own chance to coax answers from the evasive Facebook CEO on Wednesday when he testifies before that chamber’s Energy and Commerce Committee.

It’s a rare opportunity. Zuckerberg has been heavily coached for the DC leg of his apology tour, but for the controlling CEO, with a cautiously curated personal brand, these hearings provide a forum to pin him down with facts and get his statements on the record.

The impetus for the hearing was the scandal over Cambridge Analytica, which collected data on 87 million Facebook users without their consent. But some of the most telling lines of inquiry on Tuesday focused on the longstanding tradeoffs from Facebook’s business model and the mechanics of data collection that Zuckerberg would prefer to obscure: How Facebook tracks you online and offline; what personal data you inadvertent reveal; how a $477 billion company that makes money from advertisers might still respect privacy.

There were few revelations, and a longer list of not-quite-answered questions. Some lawmakers had clearly been briefed by tech-savvy Facebook critics, but still couldn’t quite hit it home.

Toward the end of the hearing, Senator Kamala Harris (D-California) attempted to list the questions where she thought Zuckerberg had been less than candid. “During the course of this hearing these last four hours you’ve been asked several critical questions for which you don’t have answers,” Harris said.

With that in mind, we offer these suggested queries for House members:

1. How does Facebook track users when they’re not on Facebook?

Users are now accustomed to the notion that Facebook harvests every post, like, comment, and share to build profiles that inform the ads it displays to a user. But senators sounded a lot like ordinary Facebook users when they asked about whether, or how, Facebook tracks them when they are not on the social network.

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More AI, policing content & other revelations from Zuckerberg’s Senate testimony

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg spent five hours testifying to the Senate, defending the social network from charges of aiding ‘Russian meddling’ and even revealing a few trade secrets in the process.

The marathon session on Tuesday involved members of the Senate Judiciary and the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation committees. While the internet trolled Zuckerberg for using a booster seat and his meme-able, grade-school bowl haircut, Facebook’s stocks had their best day in two years, with a 4.5 percent surge after weeks of decline.

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