3 Major Takeaways From Zuckerberg's Congressional Testimony

The Washington establishment is no friend to Mark Zuckerberg, the controversial tech CEO who gave two testimonies to Congress last week following the Cambridge Analytica scandal. It appears these days the only uniting force in America is the hatred of Facebook —Zuckerberg’s company that’s been left to police itself for more than a decade until they recently exposed the data of up to 87 million users to a Trump-linked political consulting firm.

Reasons behind the Facebook scorn vary, of course. Democrats were quick to blame the company for interfering in the 2016 presidential election, committing the scandalous act of somehow dethroning Hillary Clinton as America’s queen. Republicans also hate the tech giant because globalism, techno-elites and partisan cries of free speech comprise their movement. The average person hates Facebook because it’s an out-of-touch censorship machine that harvests data, profits off intellectual property theft and embodies cringe culture. Even the tech industry hates Zuckerberg’s entity.

According to a new report from Tech Crunch, there’s a lot to be said about how far their monopoly status affects the online market. “Is there an alternative to Facebook in the private sector?” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) simply asked, soon met with the CEO’s awkward stammering and evasive non-answers. Facebook currently owns four of the top apps on iOS: Instagram (#4), Messenger (#6), Facebook (#8) and WhatsApp (#19), the supposed ‘competition’ to Messenger — or, more accurately, the controlled opposition.

Other than free-to-play games littered across iOS, who sometimes have their own ties to the social media giant through sign-in processes to multi-varied rewards, Facebook is also known for copying ideas from the competition: YouTube (#5) in the company’s upcoming video hub system and Snapchat (#7) with the copy-pasted stories feature. Unless you’re using the significantly less popular Twitter (#27), littered with inactive accounts to inflate their numbers, or truly independent ventures like GAB, Steemit, and Minds, there’s no mainstream alternative to Facebook.

With this in mind, there’s simply no denying Zuckerberg and his monopoly can rival world governments— acting as the private market nation to around two billion people, expected to uphold the spirit of a free society in easily exchanged speech and media, when reality shows the company tends to act as their users’ totalitarian dictator. Consider the recent article from Vox, penned by Zuckerberg’s former speechwriter Kate Losse, who revealed the billionaire’s former motto was along the lines of “companies over countries” — a clear opposition to the views of the average user. Polls from Axios show over 55% of the people believe Washington “does not go far enough” in its oversight of big tech companies, including a 45% plurality of Republicans who prefer an internet bill of rights protecting online free speech than don’t.

Their answer is clear, but can we say the same of Zuckerberg?

When asked by Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) whether the CEO would support an “online-privacy bill of rights”, dictating children’s data couldn’t be exploited without the permission of parents, the billionaire favoured self-regulation: “I’m not sure if we need a law, but I think that this is certainly a thing that deserves a lot of discussion.”

Surely Facebook’s good behavior has never turned bad before, right? What with the suppression of footage exposing war crimes in the Middle East, the persistent suppression of Palestinian accounts exposing injustices by the Israeli regime, and the recent data scandal that caught Washington’s attention in the first place. Voters aren’t buying it, regulators aren’t buying it, and the corporate media like CNN and The New York Times won’t sell it — even when they greatly benefit from the site’s algorithm changes biased in favor of the Democratic-leaning mainstream media.

While there’s a 2014 Princeton study revealing America functions as an oligarchy, meaning the establishment only push policies that the voters want 18% of the time, it was Facebook that reminded us shocking exceptions can be made. I’m speaking of course about The Federal Trade Commission (FTC)’s decision to conduct a federal investigation into the company’s violations, specifically the 2011 settlement agreement that forbids data privacy breaches being repeated — which is exactly what happened with the whole Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Now foreign governments are jumping in on the offensive against Facebook. The Philippines National Privacy Commission recently announced they will be conducting their own investigation into the potential breach of 1.2 million users’ personal data from Phillipino users accessed by Cambridge Analytica. This was followed by announcements from Australian and Indonesian officials expected to repeat the same practice, while a U.K. Parliamentary committee has now called for the CEO to testify.

Honestly, the PNPC’s letter to Zuckerberg says it all:

“We acknowledge the communications of your global and regional representatives made directly to our office… unfortunately, your response has been generic and inadequate to satisfy the mounting concerns of users.”

And they’re right. Zuckerberg and company like to think their company alone is the moral arbiter on the crackdown of hate speech, freedom of the press and misinformation — which are diametrically opposed not only to each other’s success, but Facebook as a monopoly force. While it’s unlikely we’ll see the establishment of an internet bill of rights anytime soon that would clearly lay out the rights and liberties of users, Washington is finally forcing the company’s hand. According to various tech experts who spoke with The Atlantic, we’re most likely to see Capitol Hill pass reforms in three major areas:

1. Fines and Compensation for Data Breaches

Facebook Leaking User Data

As reported by journalist Julia Angwin, current laws don’t give the FTC authority to pursue civil cases on breaches of data — they only have the authority to conduct investigations and impose penalties on companies that have prior agreements with the agency, leaving future breaches from other companies open to absolutely no punishment whatsoever, so long as they’re free of bad behaviour slapped down by the FTC.

The Facebook monopoly, however, now a multiple offender with respect to the 2011 agreement, are by no means in the clear. Angwin spoke with David Vladeck, the former FTC director of consumer protection who crafted Facebook’s 2011 agreement, who explained how the Cambridge Analytica scandal violated the agreement in more ways than one. Facebook was reportedly charged with eight counts of unfair and deceptive behavior, including allowing third-party apps to access data obtained without a court warrant or the consent of the users — exactly what the Trump-linked firm did.

In his statement to The Atlantic, Vladeck said:

“If the FTC concludes that Facebook violated the consent decree, there will be a heavy civil penalty that could well be in the amount of $1 billion or more.”

This is consistent with the FTC statement with a specific clause stating Facebook could face fines of $16,000 per violation per day if the Cambridge Analytica scandal is given a fair ruling.

Is Facebook admitting their obvious violations of this policy? Are they ready to write the cheques? Of course not.

Andy Stone, spokesman for Facebook, told The Atlantic with a straight face:

“Facebook rejects any suggestion that it violated the consent decree… We respected the privacy settings that people had in place.”

Michelle De Mooy, the director for privacy and data at the Center for Democracy & Technology, told Vox journalist Emily Stewart this might result in a disappointing ruling even if the victims get their abundance of compensation cheques. “The problem with anything that the FTC does is that it’s not public,” De Mooy explained. “If they come to a conclusion that there was a violation, that there were unfair and deceptive practices, we still wouldn’t know why they came to that conclusion.”

2. Political Advertising Transparency

Facebook Political Ads

With the surprise upset election of President Donald Trump, known for his unrivaled knack for using social media to his advantage, it’s no wonder Congress wants to regulate the one area where Facebook can make or break their electoral future.

Washington isn’t pushing campaign reform on ethical grounds, of course. Instead, we’re watching politicians who want victories on the ever-changing RussiaGate scandal; this time focused on the thousands of Russian produced political advertisements and memes published on Facebook. Independent outlets like The Jimmy Dore Show have exposed how half of these memes, which cost around $50,000 compared to the billion-dollar presidential campaign, were published after Trump was elected.

Regardless, the FBI’s special prosecutor Robert Mueller recently charged 13 Russian memesters with “conspiring to defraud the United States” — meaning they potentially violated laws involving foreign interference in U.S. elections, when all they wanted to do was produce memes to foster an audience they could exploit through phishing scams, data harvesting, and credit card fraud.

It’s unlikely we’ll see the Russian government force the memers to go to court, but there is an argument to be made Facebook was careless in allowing criminal actors to violate user data through their platform — and to the company’s credit, they admit reforms are needed.

According to their announcement on Facebook newsroom, the social media giant will now require political advertisers to submit government-issued IDs and to have an authentic mailing address before being able to formally submit advertisements. While intentions are good, questions can be raised regarding whether anti-establishment candidates will have access to such IDs across various countries, as well as uploading addresses given the state of the company’s privacy practice.

Zuckerberg came out in support of the Honest Ads Act in his Facebook post stating the law would “raise the bar for all political advertising online.” This was followed by Twitter’s support for the potential legislation.

3. Will Facebook be editorialized?

Facebook News Source Editorializing

Here’s where regulation becomes problematic — who will be in charge of these laws? Will there be an unjust bias? And will the most unlikable people in the world be writing and enforcing them? When Congress is often found with a 20% approval rating on a good day, this is likely to be the case.

While the loosely defined “hate speech” and “fake news” were constantly on the agenda of Senators listening to Zuckerberg’s testimony last week, it was Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) who grilled the billionaire over user concerns about censorship of dissident opinions on the social media site.

Keep in mind Facebook’s legal status as a neutral public forum under section 230 of the 1996 Federal Communications Decency Act, which protects online publishers from liability for third-party content. To break this down, the laws says Facebook isn’t a newspaper, but more like a newspaper stand — and you can’t blame the guy standing behind the counter for the numerous lies published in The New York Times or National Enquirer. Sen. Cruz, however, doesn’t buy this in practice, highlighting the scandals surrounding the site’s censorship of centrist and right-wing views.

The Texas senator cited a 2016 report from Gizmodo, speaking to a former employee turned whistleblower, who revealed the site “routinely suppressed” right-wing stories from their trending topics page: highlighting CPAC, former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KT) among other topics. Sen. Cruz continued to press Zuckerberg on the Diamond & Silk comedy duo, who were issued with a content warning for being “unsafe to the community” without any evidence presented.

When Zuckerberg denied this bias, conceding Silicon Valley was “incredibly left-wing”, Sen. Cruz inquired about Palmer Luckey, the founder of Oculus VR (later bought by Facebook), who was caught funding the Nimble America organization that were “dedicated to spreading Trump’s message on the internet through anti-Hillary Clinton memes and shitposting.”

As of today, no reason has been given as to why Luckey was fired, and Zuckerberg denied accusations this was done because of politics — despite the company and top administrators like COO Sheryl Sandberg donating millions to the Democratic Party. According to the Clinton campaign emails published by Wikileaks, former campaign chair John Podesta was even floating Sandberg, his long-time friend, as one of the potential choices for Clinton’s running mate.

“We consider ourselves to be a platform for all ideas” Zuckerberg responded.

“Are you a First Amendment speaker expressing your views, or are you a neutral public forum allowing everyone to speak?” pressed Cruz.

Zuckerberg listed several reasons content could be removed from the site: “hate speech, terrorist content, nudity” and “anything that makes people feel unsafe in the community” — and there’s no doubt hateful things exists. Just look at this investigative report from ProPublica, showing how they were able to target disgusting ads to “Jew haters” on Facebook’s ad buying platform.

That said, does Facebook have a responsibility to curate news content they view as “fair” and “accurate,” or mask alternative news from third parties as “harmful” when they’ve made no claims to back this up? Wouldn’t doing so violate their immunity status, making them an online publication no different than the press who are open to libel laws? There’s no simple answer when there’s a first amendment guaranteeing press freedom as a fundamental right — much to the disappointment of far-left Silicon Valley.

We must ask ourselves who will moderate the moderators. What principles will they stand by in regulating such a monolithic problem like Facebook? Surely laws can help prevent the spread of personal data to hostile actors, ensure competition isn’t eaten up by monopolies, alongside ethics boards drafted for oversight — but these mean nothing without concrete values.

Daniel J. Weitzner, former White House deputy chief technology officer, told The Atlantic that the FTC should be given authority to police privacy similar to the Justice Department’s environmental-crimes unit — who fight against corporations who conduct raw sewage dumping or illegal animal slaughters.

Mr. Weitzner said:

“We know how to do serious law enforcement when we think there’s a real priority, and we haven’t gotten there yet when it comes to privacy.”

I propose we should take this a step further, using the FTC or equivalent to ensure protections for the press from tyrannical platforms editorializing disagreeable opinions they deem to be “harmful” or “hate speech.” Free societies surely can’t allow the paradox where the freedom of one powerful entity can restrict the freedom of others.

We should have the same with political ads, allowing users to give consent before their data can be shipped to a third party, all the while verifying political advisors belong to their rightful nation. Until such a time when Facebook can be trusted to not actively sell out their users, operating under intense scrutiny with proper checks, balances and ethical moderators in place, perhaps  it’s time to curb their totalitarian social media empire.

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