The Mark Zuckerberg testimony that took place last week was instigative of many questions concerning data sharing and user rights.
Mr Zuckerberg sat on a lonely desk before a crowd of congress men and women and a gallery full on onlookers, coherently defending his online empire by touching on its altruistic endeavours and aligning his business history with The American Dream.
An assertion that seems to go beyond normative expectations of any organisation; i.e. it would not be usual for a tool salesman to ensure that nobody used his hammers to cause harm to another being, but to ensure that the goods that he delivers are in working order for the purpose that they were made, and that they are traded fairly.
Zuckerberg seems to desire an emphatic understanding from his audience, that he takes responsibility for the hole in his platform security, stating that, ‘We didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibility, and that was a mistake. It was my mistake, and I am sorry. I started Facebook, I run it, and I am responsible for what happens here’. However, Zuckerberg takes care throughout the hearing to accept responsibility, but crucially to not admit guilt. He repeatedly reminds congress that the intention of Facebook is to bring communities together, and that it has helped to birth movements such as #MeToo, and the progression of small American businesses. Which begs the question of morality; to what extent have the 87 million Facebook users, whose information has been utilised to target marketing by third parties, been wronged?
It’s an accepted truth of modernity that the advertisements you see are tailored to your interests, a notion that is not new to the advertising industry, and congressmen point out that the testimony opens gates to many questions including that of censorship, neutrality and legal freedom of speech, and the reach of power and information that Facebook has.
It seemed as though Zuckerberg overwhelmingly wanted three facts to resonate with his audience; firstly, that Facebook users have the ability and control to opt in and out of data sharing at any time. Secondly, that Facebook is an entirely altruistic company, whose main intent is to connect users, and that they intend to ensure in the future that their tools are not misused – where, in the past they simply trusted app developers to utilise the platform altruistically. Thirdly, that the gathering of data is essential for the provision of Facebook as a public service.
So how scandalous is Facebook’s data collection and sharing?
Zuckerberg is being questioned about how he will take responsibility of the information that users share to ensure that it is not exploited by third parties. But does this not place total onus onto the third parties for exploiting user’s information? Surely, Zuckerberg is equally guilty for being complicit in this exploitation. To what extent is Facebook responsible, simply for having the capacity to store this information?
The Facebook CEO repeatedly refers to two methods of data collection that Facebook conducts; the first being the content that users knowingly and willingly share – such as the images and text that they share and have complete control over (in terms of how they can manipulate who sees what they post and can delete it at any time). The second method of data collection that Zuckerberg alludes to is ad analytics – how Facebook measures when users click on an ad.
He continually emphasises these benign purposes of data collection – that, of course, data collection makes the ad experience better for businesses and more accurate for consumers alike, and that while users can turn off their ad data collection, the types of advertisements that they see will become less relevant to them as a consequence.
To be clear, the information that Facebook is able to curate goes beyond what you knowingly post to your profile. Whilst profile information about your schooling, workplace, birthday and gender is often easily accessible, Facebook has also been able to market user profiles based on events you have attended, ads that you have clicked on, and your location based on your mobile device at the very least.
Mr Schatz approached a subject that popularised the scandal and is of a much deeper level of concern than issues relating to legislation; he asked, what personal data is being collected and how does this inform ads. Zuckerberg has gladly been accepting that Facebook collects data from content that informs your personality, including photos that you like and ads that you click through to.
But the average Facebook user wants to know how deep this scope of data collection is. Are personal messages and browsing history utilised to inform ads on Facebook?
Despite his Harvard education and exponential business success, Zuckerberg managed to misinterpret the question and instead answer that messages sent on Whatsapp, which is also owned by the Facebook Corporation, are not used to inform ads.
He manages to make Senator Schatz look ill-informed about the internet through his eloquent explanation of how applications interact, but conveniently fails to address the question as a whole.
Zuckerberg states at no time that Facebook with discontinue to collect and store personally identifiable information. He also refuses to draw a distinction between data collected whilst using the app, and that which we clearly volunteer to the public in order to present ourselves to other Facebook users.
Whilst Zuckerberg insists that this data collection is essential for the public service to continue, he does not volunteer the information that this data collection 98% responsible for the 40 billion dollars that the company made in 2017 in advertising revenue across Facebook and Instagram.
It falls upon Congressman Mr Hatch to assert that ‘everything is a trade-off […] the issue is transparency. Do organisations make clear how they extract value from their users, or do they hide the ball?’
Going forwards, Zuckerberg discloses that he is working to make it clear to users whether there are multiple versions of an advertisement, and whether the one that they are seeing is tailored to their personality.
Zuckerberg implies that the average person is not inclined to read an exhaustive list of their privacy rights, thus detailing them on the platform is counterproductive. What this has led to is a grey area about who owns the data that is posted online. Zuckerberg insists that users own any content that they share online – but his definition extends only to their right to manipulate who sees their content and that they are able to remove it from their profiles at any time.
During the testimony, congress attempted to ascribe some clarity to this issue, stating that, ‘I can’t imagine that it’s true as a legal matter that I actually own my Facebook data, because you’re the one monetising it. It doesn’t seem to me that we own our own data, else we would be getting a cut.’
To which Zuckerberg reluctantly admitted that ‘by putting [content] on Facebook, you are granting us a licence to show it to other people’.
Zuckerberg did not disclose the specifics of who these ‘other people’ may include.
The debate moves forward to discuss a conflict of interests for Facebook and platforms like it. Congress seems to agree that a decision needs to be made about what to prioritise, the growth of companies – which rely on the collection of personally identifiable data to help micro-targeting and ad personalisation, or platform users’ right to privacy.
Further concerns are that if Facebook where to create a provision that third parties cannot utilise users’ personally identifiable data, Facebook alone would monopolise this market due to the corporation’s reluctance to discontinue data gathering.
The closing sentiment of the testimony is that it was Zuckerberg’s trust that was exploited, by Cambridge Analytica, and absolutely not users’ trust that was exploited by Zuckerberg’s empire. After all, ranking member Mr Nelson explicitly said that ‘I think you [Zuckerberg] are genuine. I get that sense from you.’
Words: Amy Cully Steele