Gallup released results of a poll about Facebook to coincide with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's appearance before a joint hearing of the U.S. Senate Judiciary and Commerce committees yesterday. The poll found that 74% of those surveyed were very or somewhat concerned about "invasion of privacy."

News flash: It's not an "invasion" if you willingly give away personal and private information to a company like Facebook. Why would anyone who is concerned about privacy participate in Facebook?

Anyway, we watched most of the Senate Facebook "hearings" yesterday. Zuckerberg, who was not testifying under oath, came across as calm, cool and collected. He admitted mistakes and promised to fix them. Again. He was clearly coached, and kept coming back to the same stock answers.

He was also evasive. His standard answer to every privacy concern was that users have total control over what happens to their data. Right. Have you actually looked at Facebook's privacy settings, assuming you can even find them?

There was discussion about the density and complexity of Facebook's terms of service and whether people actually read them and understand what they are agreeing to. Zuckerberg said it's all there, it's non-negotiable, and it's up to users to read it.

When asked about competition, Zuckerberg couldn't name any. This raised the question of whether Facebook is a monopoly. Senators also questioned whether Facebook should be allowed to self-regulate. One Republican Senator helpfully suggested that regulations would stifle competition because it would be harder for smaller companies to comply. Zuckerberg agreed, but said he is not opposed to regulation as long as it's the "right" regulation. He offered to work with legislators to help craft laws. Thanks, Mark!

Regarding rogue content and behavior, including Russian propaganda operations and the like, Zuckerberg touted artificial intelligence as the solution but said development would take years. He also said that policing malicious content such as hate speech would still require humans who speak the native language. To this end, he said they are hiring more "content and security" analysts and would have 20,000 by the end of the year. With 100 billion daily interactions (according to Zuckerberg), that equates to one analyst monitoring five million interactions. Every day. OK, then.

Zuckerberg also pledged greater transparency regarding ads. He said he has worked with Congress on a proposed "Honest Ads" bill that would regulate online political advertising and restrict foreign advertising that would influence elections.

He said they are already implementing some of the proposed changes. One involves verifying the identity and physical location of every ad buyer. When asked how they could do that when people hide behind corporations and LLCs, he said they would send a post card to their physical address with the ad activation codes. This doesn't sound workable. And Facebook's ad sales people aren't going to like it.

Another feature would let users click on an ad and see who placed it, what profile data was used to target the ad, and also show all the other ads placed by that advertiser. Zuckerberg said this would let users see if different messages were tailored for different target audiences. I'm guessing advertisers will love all the free ad impressions this would generate.

One of the more dramatic moments came when Sen. Kamala Harris grilled Zuckerberg on Facebook's initial decision not to notify users their data had been compromised by Cambridge Analytica. His answers were evasive. I'm guessing this relates to a previous FTC consent decree regarding privacy and data protection. What they knew, when they knew it, and what they did about it could be key to whether they are facing staggering fines and penalties.

The "hearings" covered a broad range of topics and some of the discussions were fascinating. Facebook appears willing to take action on privacy and content issues, even if some their solutions are naive and/or unworkable. And they would agree to some regulation. But it's not out of any altruistic motive -- it's just good business because their survival depends on restoring and maintaining trust in their product.

Another takeaway is that members of Congress who would regulate Facebook and other social media are generally clueless about how this stuff works. No worries, though. Zuckerberg is there to guide them.

And here's an important point missed in all this angst about social media: There are companies collecting far more data about you than what you willingly and knowingly give away to Facebook. Companies like Acxiom collect and aggregate data about you without your knowledge or consent. They know more about you than your mother or your spouse. They have all your financial data, your credit history, your employment record, any criminal background, your political and ideological leanings, and what products you buy down to what's in your grocery cart at checkout. And it's all for sale. If we're really concerned about regulating privacy, this might be a better place to start.

One final thought. This entire Facebook episode is about influence. The idea that Russian operatives influenced an American election using Facebook is scary. It would be wrong, however, for people to get the idea that any form of influence is a bad thing to be resisted. The whole point of political communication is to influence voters. Advertising is intended to influence buying behavior. This is just how it works in a free market of ideas and commerce. The danger, though, is allowing unknown entities to influence our behavior using lies and fake news with malicious intent. I'm looking at you, Fox News.

R. Neal's picture

Also, Trump should send

Also, Trump should send Zuckerberg a thank you note for taking the spotlight off Trump's legal problems for one day.

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