Congressional Hearings on Facebook

Yesterday, I watched the Senate hearings on Facebook. Disappointment is the wrong word: that implies that I had a higher expectation. I did not. The House hearings have just started and so far…it’s more of the same.

It doesn’t seem to matter what the industry or who is being interrogated, the Senators and Representatives holding the hearing are just embarassing. It’s apparent that they’ve done (or had their aids do) just enough research to be dangerous. The Facebook hearings are no exception.

These are hearings to grill Mark Zuckerberg on the Cambridge Analytica situation and FB privacy issues in general. Facebook is a tool that I use personally, and one that I help clients use in their businesses. While some of the ways in which FB helps to target ads is creepy for individuals, it’s advantageous for advertisers. That said, the Cambridge Analytica situation is a concern because FB did not appear to realize how their information was being used or that their platform was vulnerable, and once they did, did not share that knowledge with their users who were affected. So yes, I believe privacy policies should be transparent, that FB needs to shore up some of their systems and that there is a line to be drawn. Do I think government should be involved in drawing that line? Hell to the no.

Some of the questions that were clearly intended to be “gotcha” questions only demonstrated that the Senators had no idea how the FB platform works, or understand their business model. This is a free platform. It should be obvious that we’ll be expected to trade something for that free-ness. In this case, it’s every bit of information FB can gather about our habits and preferences, extracted from our posts, the websites we visit, the products we purchase or look at, and more. Some of this seemed to be a new concept to the Senators.

Facebook does not “sell” information. They sell ads that use the algorithms and data they collect to target prospects for those ads. Zuckerberg was apologetic that they did not anticipate the ways in which others might use their tool for wrong-doing. There is some concern that Zuckerberg has apologized before without taking any action to correct the situations. I guess the good thing is that the subject is getting national attention, but I’m not sure that couldn’t have been accomplished by a good investigative journalist.

Zuckerberg is on the hot seat, but Facebook is not the only one in this situation. ANYTHING you do on the internet is likely to be collected by someone.  On an online dating site? Clicking on a digital ad? Making purchases on line? Liking, commenting or sharing a post on LinkedIn, FB, Instagram or Pinterest? We’re putting all kinds of information out there about what we like and how we buy. Companies are going to figure out how to monetize it. It makes sense that those demographic profiles are also going to be used for political purposes.

So what can be done about it? We can carefully and purposefully understand the settings on every one of our devices and the platforms we use. We can use the settings available to make sure we’re sharing our information only with those that we intend to share it with. And then, assume that EVERYTHING we put on the internet has the potential to be shared somewhere that we don’t expect.

This is particularly dangerous on a number of levels for kids. Kids under 13 are not allowed on FB, but that leaves some very vulnerable teen years in play. It’s difficult to get kids to understand exactly how serious this is, but we need to keep beating it into their heads (and parents needs to monitor our kid’s social platforms…).

Finally, I’m not at all sure that FB needs to take responsibility for the way in which their platform is used. I appreciate that they’re trying to put policies in place to ensure that FB is not used “for evil”, but do we blame the phone company for illegal acts that are planned on a phone call? Do we blame the post office for propaganda that is delivered through the U.S. Mail? We blame the perpetrator, not the platform.

So Mark Zuckerberg, good luck today. You did a masterful job yesterday of not indicating with words or body language how incredibly idiotic or repetitive some of the Senator’s questions were. They DO love hearing themselves talk, and in some cases, didn’t even ask a question – it was a 4 or 5-minute self-serving monologue.

A comment was made on the news this morning that rang true: “Congressional hearings are intended to be political theatre; not much substance there.” What a waste of our resources.