Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and chief executive, faced a two-day grilling from lawmakers as he testified on Capitol Hill this week about the Cambridge Analytica data leak, fake news and Russian election meddling.
Here’s what we learned from the global media spectacle.
Facebook Open to Tighter Regulation
The billionaire Facebook founder said he was open to the “right regulation” of his social media empire and he agreed to support a rule forcing Facebook to notify users of a data breach within 72 hours — the company had kept the 87m users whose data were improperly harvested and passed to Cambridge Analytica in the dark since 2015.
But Zuckerberg would not commit to specific legislation in front of a testimony to law-makers that added more than $17bn to Facebook’s market value.
Zuckerberg’s statement — the only indication to date that Facebook would cow-tow to regulators — was a response to senators who threatened greater state oversight of the tech industry because Facebook and its peers had failed to police themselves effectively.
“We need to take a more proactive view in policing the ecosystem,” Zuckerberg said. “At the end of the day, people will measure us by our results on this. I don’t expect anything I say today will change people’s view.” Quite.
Zuckerberg Vows to Combat Russian Election Meddling
Zuckerberg vowed to combat the election meddling that has drawn the ire of global regulators and contributed to the battering of Facebook’s stock price over the past few months.
He said that Facebook was in an “arms race” with Russian computer hackers who were trying to breach Facebook’s systems and he confirmed that Russia’s disinformation campaign had been ongoing during the US presidential election.
“You know there are people in Russia whose job is to exploit our systems,” Zuckerberg told Congress. “They are going to keep getting better at this and we need to invest in keeping on getting better at this, too.”
Facebook was heavily criticized for its slow response to the spread of Russian trolls that attempted to influence the US election in 2016.
Zuckerberg told Capitol Hill that this was “one of my greatest regrets” and added that Facebook had developed artificial intelligence to help identify the fake Russian accounts responsible for spreading propaganda.
Facebook Won’t Stop Hoarding User Data
Despite the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Zuckerberg refused to curb the amount of personal information that Facebook collects.
Capitol Hill had demanded changes to Facebook’s default settings, so that the company did not automatically scoop up data from users who often don’t know they are giving it away.
But Zuckerberg retorted that data collection was “a complex issue that deserves more than a one-word answer”.
This makes sense. After all, Facebook’s global marketing business is built upon the data hoovered up from its approximately 2bn active users. Facebook made nearly $40bn last year from selling adverts. With less data on users, that figure — and its profits — would surely shrink.
But It’s Business as Usual for Facebook
Although Zuckerberg has faced a two-day grilling from US senators and agreed to small demands and admitted a litany of mistakes and personal regrets, he has emerged mostly unscathed. There were wobbles, but major change to the way Facebook is regulated and operates, seems unlikely anytime soon.
Facebook users have long been aware that their data is used for advertising and as long as they have prior knowledge, that does not seem to bother many of them, illustrated by Facebook’s explosive user growth. Reducing the amount of data collected would also hit Facebook’s bottom line — the company will campaign fearlessly against that.
There remain important questions to answer over the Cambridge Analytica scandal — not least whether regulators can look at Facebook’s advertising systems, why Facebook failed to report the data leak earlier, and why Facebook can’t tell us where the data have gone. But it’s likely to be business as usual for the social media juggernaut — for now.