Mark Zuckerberg explains Facebook's behavior to US Congress

The WikiTribune community reporting on Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony before Congress. It’s also tracking the user data collected by Facebook apps. Add a screenshot and brief description if you received a message from Facebook saying your data was mined by Cambridge Analytica or other apps. 

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was brought to Washington D.C. on Tuesday by a scandal surrounding Cambridge Analytica, a political consultancy group that harvested data from roughly 87 million Facebook users without their knowledge. Ahead of his congressional testimony, Facebook contacted those affected by the Cambridge Analytica breach. The social media platform reportedly also posted a link on the newsfeeds of all 2.2 billion users listing the apps they use, and which data these apps were able to scrape (Guardian). 

Many of the questions centered on whether Facebook took data privacy seriously. At least three senators directly asked the 33-year CEO whether Facebook’s privacy policy violated a Federal Trade Commission consent decree, an agreement the social media company made to not share user data without their permission. Zuckerberg said he believed the answer to be “no.”

Visibly uncomfortable with a few questions on his first day of testimony, Zuckerberg steered the testimony towards reforms made or recognizing that “mistake were made.” He admitted the latter after being pressed by Senator Kamala Harris that there was an internal decision not to inform users affected by Cambridge Analytica’s data mining in 2015.

The second day of testimony was less cordial, with many of the congress members following up on Senate questions that Zuckerberg evaded the day prior. Zuckerberg’s admission that his own personal data was by collected by Cambridge Analytica was a standout sound-byte that grabbed headlines. That the tech-savvy CEO had his own data scrapped indicates that data scrapping was either a truly hidden phenomenon, or one that the Facebook simply didn’t regard as an issue: a debate that lived on throughout the grueling congressional testimony.

Several congress members followed up on the question of what happens when a Facebook user logs out of the service. Previously Zuckerberg said that any data mining outside of the platform was used for “security purposes.” Rep. Steve Scalise, while friendly in tone, pointedly asked whether data collected after a user leaves the platform is also used in their ad-based model. Zuckerberg paused, eventually answering that it was not.

Zuckerberg laid considerable blame on the steps of Cambridge University, the top UK university and its researcher Alexander Kogan, who ultimately gave data to Cambridge Analytica. (The two groups are separate entities).

“We do need to understand whether there is something bad going on at Cambridge University overall that will require a stronger action from us,” Zuckerberg testified.

Facebook gave Cambridge University access to user data for the academic and research purposes, not for corporate or political gain – which is how Cambridge Analytica tried to use it. Cambridge University said it would be a surprise if Zuckerberg truly didn’t know what the university was working on, considering Facebook employees often assisted with studies (Guardian).

Each time the prospect of government regulation came up, in either day, Zuckerberg said he was open to the idea but was currently unconvinced of its need. This included the Consent Act, a law that would require consumers to “opt-in” to data collection, rather than to opt-out, similar to European Union standards (The Verge). Zuckerberg said he agreed with this law “in principle” but would have to see how it would be implemented.

“Not all government regulation is bad … it’s about finding the right framework,” Zuckerberg explained at the tail end of the testimony.

As a company with a mission to connect people around the world, he defended the ad-based business model as “right for us,” spurring the idea of making the social media platform a paid service. However, he also said there would always be a “free version” of the platform, suggesting that there could be room to move on the company’s business model. He also rejected the idea that Facebook was not incentivized to guard data privacy, reminding the panel that “this incident has clearly hurt us,” indicating that the company is beholden to public opinion.

Political advertising

Zuckerberg also answered questions on Facebook’s previous scandals around the 2016 U.S. presidential election. This included support for government regulation, something that he otherwise opposed, in the form of the Honest Ads Act, a law that regulates political advertising on social media platforms (TechCrunch).

While he couldn’t guarantee that Russian-based users would not continue to post political content during American elections, he championed the reforms made to minimize the possibility. Chiefly, Facebook advertisers must submit a government-recognized ID before putting up political content, and must be in country to do so.

Content review: hate speech and censorship

Nearly every time Zuckerberg was asked about Facebook becoming a platform of divisive material, he pointed to the promising possibilities of Artificial Intelligence (AI). While the company hires moderators to review flagged material, he made it clear that the future of screening content is more algorithms and less humans. He even pointed to AI tools as a solution to Republican allegations that conservative speech is targeted by moderators.

When speaking with Senator Ted Cruz, who dedicated his time to alleged liberal bias of the company, Zuckerberg denied that Facebook has any political motives, or does not hire conservative voices.

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The social media pioneer  testified before House Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday April 11 and the Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees on April 10. On Monday, he spoke privately with some U.S. lawmakers.

Highlights from Zuckerberg testimony

Joint hearing with the Senate Judiciary and Commerce: 

Data privacy 

  • Zuckerberg promises that data from Facebook Messenger for Kids, a service that children access through their parents’ accounts, will never be available for third-party developers.
  • Facebook will get rid of user data once an account is deleted, but can’t say how long it takes to fully delete.
  • Zuckerberg denies that Facebook defied the Federal Trade Commission’s consent decree to make an effort to protect user data, when being questioned by Sen. Richard Blumenthal.
  • Zuckerberg says he supports the Consent Act in principle, legislation that forces consumers to “opt-in” before data can be shared, similar to the European Union.
  • Rejects the idea that legislation is necessary to protect children from third-party data collection.
  • There are strong Chinese internet companies that pose a strategic threat to the United States.
  • Facebook is more stringent on data privacy than the U.S. government, for example, surveillance organizations do not delete data.
  • Sen. Thom Tillis defends Facebook’s data sharing policy, saying that anyone can change their privacy settings. Reminded the committee that it’s a free service, and that data mining has gone on before Cambridge Analytica.
  • Admits that a decision was made to not inform users that Cambridge Analytica mined their data when pressed with Sen. Kamala Harris.
  • Any Facebook employee has the ability to look at the data of a personal account.

Content review

  • Content review is an area that needs serious improvement. Refers to AI as the answer, hiring moderators is limited, answering Sen. Chris Coon’s questions.
  • On Facebook hate speech in Myanmar: Three things we’re doing in Myanmar specifically: 1) Hiring enough local language support, those who speak Burmese. 2) Find civil leaders who can help us identify those who are spreading hate. 3) Product changes on issues concerning news literacy. Encouraging fact-checking services that start from product development. (Facebook is widely used in Myanmar where ethnic tensions have swelled, leading to violent episodes.) 
  • Divisive and inaccurate political ads can be weeded out with AI tools that have yet to be developed.

Law enforcement

  • Rejects that Facebook willingly shares data with Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) officers to deport undocumented immigrants. Only proactively shares data with law enforcement to stop immediate harm.
  • Facebook will always push back against law enforcement unless a subpoena is filed.

Government regulation and anti-trust

  • Sen. Lindsay Graham asks whether Facebook has a monopoly on its services. Zuckerberg says other tech companies and social media platforms offer services that overlap with Facebook’s.
  • Graham presses on whether Facebook faces “real” competition, when it can buy other services such as Instagram, and if not whether it needs more regulation.
  • Zuckerberg says the challenge of regulation is that large companies like Facebook can handle it, but smaller ones cannot.
  • Views Facebook as a tech company, but is responsible for our content. What keeps Facebook from being a publisher is that they don’t create content.
  • Reaffirms support for ‘Honest Ads Act’: won’t necessarily be a personal advocate for the law in Washington D.C. But supports it.
  • On diversity and inclusion: Zuckerberg said he’s open to the idea of civil rights groups auditing Facebook’s practices that could be linked to racial bias.

Political speech

  • Sen. Ted Cruz asks if Facebook is a “neutral public forum” or do they “engage in political speech.” Cites a Gizmodo article that conservative publications were removed from trending news.
    • Zuckerberg says they do not engage in political speech, but do filter out content that could make people “uncomfortable.”
  • Zuckerberg rejects Sen. Cruz’s suggestion that Facebook executive Palmer Luckey was fired for having conservative political views (Tech Crunch). Says that employees are never asked about their political views in the hiring process.
  • Asked to define hate speech by Sen. Ben Sasse: besides calls for violence, he says that moderating hate speech will be addressed by AI technology.


  • Facebook does not sell data to advertisers, “we do placement,” says Zuckerberg to Sen. John Cornyn.
  • Can’t guarantee that Russian internet agency accounts are all deleted. Says it is never going to be 100 percent successful in preventing this.
  • Reiterates new advertising system that demands government-verified ID for ad purchasers. Ad purchasers must be based within the country.
  • Advertisers are not given access to user data.
  • Facebook does not collect audio as data for advertising, refers to this idea as a “conspiracy theory.”
  • “The ads model is right for us” because it aligns with mission to connect people. Does not give credence to paying for Facebook services.

Technology addiction

  • If you’re using social media to build relationships, that’s associated with long-term health benefits. But if you’re using social media to passively consume content, then you see negative outcomes.
  • Zuckerberg denies that Facebook develops products that trigger more dopamine, hence raising addiction chances.

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