The Facebook Hearing, the ‘Tech Company’ Misnomer, and the Luddite Gap in Congress

“If I buy a Ford and it doesn’t work well and I don’t like it, I can buy a Chevy,” “If I’m upset with Facebook, what’s the equivalent product that I can go sign up for? […] Is Twitter the same as what you do? […] You don’t think you have a monopoly?”

– Sen. Lindsay Graham questioning Mr. Zuckerberg, April 10, 2018

Watching the Zuckerberg Senate hearing on April 10, 2018, a few things are clear. Honestly I don’t think Facebook has done anything wrong here. Nearly since their inception television ads have been targeting people with all sorts of hateful and false information for political purposes, or selling pharmaceutical drugs, alcohol, tobacco, and so on. Politicians are not similarly inflamed about all those advertisements that we have been putting up with for decades on television and in print.

It’s a common misconception that Facebook sells or shares user data to third parties, but as Mr. Zuckerberg stated several times during his Senate testimony, it appears that Facebook does not do so. I see no reason to not believe him. In this present scandal, a third party entity set up an app of its own on Facebook as a personality quiz for Facebook users to choose to voluntarily take for fun. Facebook users who answered the questions on the quiz also consented to reveal all the information that is public on Facebook regarding their Facebook “friend” groups, such as their Facebook avatar name, age, location, job, education, and/or interests. People who use Facebook volunteer to publicly share all such information when they create their profiles and consent to the Terms of Use. That is all the information that was allegedly collected by that third party Facebook user who created the personality quiz app. It was a voluntarily transaction between the third party app creator and the Facebook users who took said personality quiz. They, not Facebook, then allegedly sold that information to Cambridge Analytica. For example, if I decide to put up advertisements of my own on Facebook, Facebook asks me what groups I want to target, and I tell them. Facebook never shares the information of any users with me. They take my ad target-parameters and my requested advertisement content, and they put up the advertisement that I request and target the individuals that I asked them to target. As Mr. Zuckerberg stated in his sworn testimony in the Senate, Facebook never shares user data with anybody, and it never sells user data to anybody. It’s amazing how many times he had to repeat that in the Senate during the hearings, but it seemed so many of the Senators just didn’t hear or understand him because they kept using the words “sell” and “share” when talking about what Facebook does with user data. He had to correct them so many times until he just seemed to give up on that futile effort towards the end of the 5-hour marathon interrogation.

It’s ridiculous to suggest that Facebook should independently monitor every third party’s advertisement on its site to make sure that the advertiser and the ad are legitimate, authentic, and safe for general consumption; but frankly between its “flag” feature where users can report problematic ads or behavior on the platform, its Artificial Intelligence surveillance, and its team of 10,000+ ad auditors (which Zuckerberg stated in the Senate that he’s increasing to 20,000 soon), Facebook is doing exactly that. So what more could we reasonably ask? On top of that, it’s Facebook users who are choosing to share so much private information about themselves with the public on their Facebook profiles!

Massachusetts Senator Markey’s suggestion of a Privacy Bill of Rights would simply add redundant regulation that would overburden small startups and independent budding entrepreneurs who are trying to compete with major companies like Facebook. It’s far easier for a large corporation to abide by the minefield of regulation with their in-house regulatory legal counsel and staff, in comparison to tiny startups who are barely aware that such regulations even exist or pertain to their company’s activities.

Facebook is being scapegoated right now because we have Donald Trump as our President allegedly as a result of advertisements. The real reason we have Pres. Trump is not because of Facebook ads but because of a sadly surprising racist populace. As reported on April 13, 2018 on APM Technology’s podcast, Political Science Prof. Hillygus of Duke University said she has not seen any scientific data that shows that Cambridge Analytica’s efforts had any impact whatsoever on influencing people’s actual votes.

This whole Congressional Facebook hearing is a sham. As Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana reflected during the day, the hearing is disappointing because the politicians are simply failing to connect with Mr. Zuckerberg. But ironically, based on his own posited questions, Mr. Kennedy seems so out-of-touch with how Facebook works.

So much of the problem here relates to figuring out which laws apply to Facebook and other so-called “tech companies”. There really is no such thing as a “tech company” or “the tech industry”. Everything implements and is a product of “technology” including the wheel, the hammer, bricks, and mortar. It’s ridiculously Luddite-like to simply look at a company that has at its foundation computer bits and digital features rather than analog facets and simply to lump it together with other such companies and call them all “tech companies” in some meaningless generic taxonomy.

We should rather call companies what they are. Facebook is arguably the world’s largest publishing company and advertising company. It is also arguably one of the world’s largest telecommunications and media companies. Whatever regulations apply to such companies should apply to Facebook. The same thing goes for Google and other so-called tech companies. The problem right now is that the phrase “tech company” is seemingly being used by everybody including the companies themselves to help them avoid all these regulations, to seemingly illegitimately differentiate themselves from the very companies and entire industries that they are putting out of business! A primary example of a company seemingly avoiding key regulations because of its vague label as a “tech company” is Amazon, which seems to be steps ahead of all sorts of antitrust laws because of this ridiculous taxonomy. A retailer is a retailer, regardless of whether it is online or brick-and-mortar, but politicians keep getting bogged down in questions about what kind of retailer Amazon actually is: a bookseller, a Target rival, a grocer, or a Netflix rival.

Watching this Senate hearing with all these crusty Luddite Democrats and Republicans on one side and on the other side this teenage-looking Zuckerberg (whose unblinking, robotic earnestness resembles the cyborg Data from “Star Trek: The Next Generation”) really underscores the point that the politicians simply have no idea what to make of post-analog corporations.

Two younger and supposedly more hip Senators are worse in a different way: Cory Booker and Kamala Harris sit next to each other during the hearing and seem all buddy-buddy. They both seem so image-conscious of presenting themselves as social justice fighters, but this comes off as superficial, egotistical, and public relation-y. Their half-questioning of Zuckerberg appears to me like a big PR stump speech on how cool they are in their own esteem, how much they “care” about the little guy.

But largely, it seems like most common folks don’t really care much about this alleged Facebook scandal, as is made clear during Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson’s questioning of Zuckerberg. The Senator and Mr. Zuckerberg appear to admit as much, with the latter stating that this entire Cambridge Analytica scandal has had nary an impact on Facebook’s user numbers. As reported in NPR’s Technology podcast on April 13, 2018, even users who have received a recent letter from Facebook alerting them that their public profile data was accessed by Cambridge Analytica have not deleted their own Facebook accounts for a variety of reasons.

Senator Thom Tillis, the Republican from North Carolina, however was notable in his final commentary where he underscored the fact that it remains the personal choice of Facebook users as to whether they want to use the service, adjust their privacy settings, and share any information with it in the first place. It’s this one-two punch of personal responsibility and freedom that Republicans have been using to their advantage for too many years, but often it’s nothing more than a glib PR myth that has worked too well for them to twist and misuse including in the last election.

Sure, the newly suggested Bill of Rights-type regulation scheme makes little sense in regards to companies like Facebook where users are willingly giving up their privacy and where the real extent of damage brought on by Cambridge Analytica-type sins is arguable. But to the GOP I say: that doesn’t mean we don’t need regulations in our country where it truly matters, from minimum wage laws to environmental protections, from antitrust laws to banking regulations! This is the stuff that deserves intense Congressional scrutiny, hearings, and media attention! Not Facebook’s Terms of Use.

Frankly, the Facebook hearing is more of an opportunity to judge our politicians than Facebook, and sadly they do not fare well, particularly the Democrats. Given that the 2018 mid-term elections are imminent, I’m concerned that this will give Republicans another fantastic opportunity to criticize Democrats, bolster their own excessive anti-regulatory agenda, and give Pres. Trump more support … assuming he’s not impeached by then.

–  Ali Shahrestani