Congressional lawmakers tried to put on a good show while grilling Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg about the misappropriation of detailed personal data from as many as 87 million users by Cambridge Analytica, the political consulting firm linked to the Trump campaign.
But after 10 hours of testimony by Zuckerberg spread over two days last week, it seemed clear that many graying members of Congress are unprepared to regulate Facebook — or any other social-media or data-driven companies — even if they wanted to.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), who is 62, asked Zuckerberg if Twitter was “the same as what you do,” while Sen. Orrin Hatch (R., Utah), who is 84, asked how Facebook made money.
Zuckerberg, 33, said, “Senator, we run ads.”
As lawmakers struggled to understand how Facebook works, the social-media giant’s share price increased, as investors quickly understood the hearings were likely to result in what Shakespeare described as “sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Zuckerberg apologized for the data breach, just as he has done repeatedly over the years for previous screw-ups. He also dodged lawmakers’ questions nearly two dozen times. Meanwhile, the senators were roasted on Twitter.
But allowing Facebook to resume business as usual is not an option. With more than two billion users around the world, Facebook wields enormous power through the vast amount of private data it collects.
During the hearing, Zuckerberg said some regulation was “inevitable,” but he did not commit to any sweeping privacy changes. Instead, Zuckerberg said it was important to get the “right regulation.” Translation: Facebook lobbyists may be willing to help clueless lawmakers craft watered-down regulations.
But even as Zuckerberg promised that Facebook would do a better job of protecting users’ privacy, the company was actively fighting privacy measures in California and Illinois.
In February, Facebook – along with Comcast, Google, Verizon, and AT&T — together contributed more than $1 million to a political action committee set up to oppose a ballot measure in California called the Consumer Right to Privacy Act of 2018. If approved, the measure would allow Californians to prohibit companies from selling or sharing their personal data. Shortly after Zuckerberg finished testifying in Washington, Facebook said it would no longer contribute to the PAC.
Last fall, Facebook began bulking up its army of roughly 40 lobbyists in Washington after revelations that Russians exploited its network to help elect President Trump. The social-media behemoth spent $11.5 million on lobbying last year, a 32 percent increase from 2016.
That lobbying offensive is sure to shape any efforts to protect users. Not to mention that the Republican-controlled Congress is more focused on stripping away many regulations, ranging from the environment to the financial industry. In March, Congress scrapped online privacy rules imposed by the Federal Communications Commission last year, a victory for telecommunications and cable giants such as AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon.
In contrast, the European Union is implementing data privacy regulations next month that will make it easier for users to approve or withhold use of their data. Zuckerberg said Facebook is complying with the European rules and will extend those safeguards to its users around the world.
That should offer Facebook users some protection as Congress dawdles. But eventually America’s lawmakers must act.