Opinion: The Real Facebook Scandal
Congress has been unwilling to do anything significant to protect Americans
If Congress wants someone to blame for the massive data breach at Facebook that compromised 87 million users’ personal information leading up to the 2016 presidential campaign, it could start with Mark Zuckerberg, who will testify on Capitol Hill on Tuesday and Wednesday.
As the CEO of the massive social media company, Zuckerberg has engineered a platform that collects more information about more people than any entity or government in the history of the world and then sells access to that information for huge profits. Zuckerberg alone made $23 billion in the first eight months of 2017, including a $1 billion gain in a single day in August.
Congress could also blame Cambridge Analytica, the political consulting firm that accessed that data through questionable means in 2015, or even the Russian government, which has separately been shown to have easily manipulated multiple American social media platforms, including Facebook, to spread disinformation and disrupt the political process in the United States, before and after the 2016 elections.
And although they all undoubtedly deserve some of the heat coming their way, Congress should also take a long look at itself and its own processes that have allowed Facebook and its power to grow unchecked and its businesses to go almost completely unregulated, despite repeated warnings that Facebook was abusing users’ privacy and evidence that it was quickly expanding its reach into media, elections, commerce, and data mining operations.
The fact that this is the first time Zuckerberg has ever testified before Congress tells you all you really need to know about how seriously Washington has taken Facebook and the threat to Americans’ privacy.
Watch: Three Democrats Who Own Facebook Shares Will Question Zuckerberg
Walks of shame
Congress has hauled up any number of people to Capitol Hill to deal with issues that threaten the health and safety of Americans. Even international companies have not been immune. The CEO of Toyota testified when airbags in some of its cars failed to deploy. The heads of every major financial firm came in after the 2007 financial crisis nearly brought down the American economy. Even Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa showed up in 2005 to talk about doping in baseball.
But where were Zuckerberg and the other technology titans last year, even after we knew the Russian government and other malicious actors had used these companies’ own tools for voter suppression and cyber warfare, or that the platforms were unwittingly hosting millions of fake users and bots designed to manipulate American elections?
Where was Zuckerburg in 2011 after the Federal Trade Commission found that Facebook had deceived consumers by telling them they could keep their information on Facebook private, and then repeatedly allowed it to be shared and made public?
And why didn’t Congress bring Zuckerberg up to testify after repeated warnings that the FTC was not enforcing the consent decree that Facebook signed when it agreed, but failed, to tighten its privacy controls and increase its transparency for users?
Facebook and its leadership are a little like all of social media — they share with us what they want us to know and nearly all of it is positive.
We know that Mark Zuckerberg has two kids and that being a father means a lot to him. We know that Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg thinks that women should lean into their careers. We know that they, as a company, see themselves as a force for social good. In his prepared testimony this week, Zuckerburg will tell Congress that Facebook is “an idealistic and optimistic company” that is essentially only guilty of not imagining that bad people would use them for bad purposes.
But some of Facebook’s own founders have said recently that the social media giant is unleashing forces on global society that few people could fully comprehend. Sean Parker, an early investor in Facebook, told Axios recently that Facebook was literally designed to be addictive.
“The unintended consequences of a network when it gets to one or two billion people — God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains,” he said.
Last December, Chamath Palihapitiya, an early Facebook executive, described the “tremendous guilt” he felt for his part in creating Facebook and its tools.
“In the back deep recesses of our minds, we kind of knew something bad could happen,” he said. “It literally is at a point now where we have created tools that are ripping apart the fabric of how society works.”
Palihapitiya said he now uses no social media at all and won’t let his children use it either.
“If you feed the beast, that beast will destroy you,” he said. “If you push back on it, we have a chance to control it and reign it in.”
Congress has a chance now, not to push back on Facebook, but to at least rein it in. Lawmakers should demand that Facebook share with its users at least as much information as they have on them. Who has seen users’ information and how was it used? Which foreign actors have tried to influence American users and what did they do? Also, who really owns’ users’ data once it’s shared?
So far, Facebook has indicated that it is willing to go along with minor regulations like the Honest Ads Act, which would essentially treat online ads the same as broadcast ones for transparency purposes. But Sandburg last week resisted the idea of letting users opt out of having their data shared if they want it kept private.
Regardless of what Zuckerberg says on the Hill, there is widespread expectation that there will be no legislation this year to deal with Facebook, Russian election meddling, data breaches or any of the other issues that are likely to come up, proving that the real scandal isn’t what Facebook is doing to Americans’ privacy and elections, but Congress’ unwillingness to do anything significant to protect them.
Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.