Softball with Zuckerberg: When Being the “Smartest Guy in the Room” is a Global Disaster

Reflecting on the Zuckerberg testimony from yesterday, the biggest take away from the joint hearing between the Judiciary Committee and the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee is that no one sitting on either committee has a clue about what Facebook is, what Facebook does, and the only person in the equation that has the ability to ask a legitimate question on Facebook is Zuckerberg himself. And he’s picking answers off a sheet of paper that gives little insight, clarification, or does anything but market Facebook as a dorm room startup that made some mistakes and will do better in the future, and just consider all the good that it can do.

Literally, no one in that chamber has a clue what to ask, how to ask it, and it wouldn’t matter if they did. It’s a farce. Watch a video about nailing Jell-O to a tree, or go do it yourself, you’ll get the same kind of insights into Facebook and data privacy as you would get from watching the Senate hearing.

Just a few questions that needed to be asked and honestly, genuinely, and succinctly answered regarding Facebook, the data users share, their role as moderators of an online community, and the implications that Facebook has in the lives of their billions of users:

  1. What was the mindset behind banning Christopher Wylie and do you see how that could have a chilling effect on your userbase reporting issues to Facebook in the future?
  2. Can you definitively say that your removal of bad actors on the platform has any real, long-lasting, and meaningful implications for data security and user privacy, given the ease of opening new accounts?
  3. Do you recognize your feels good but does nothing nature of your plans to thwart meddling in elections, that verifying political and social issue advertising users through receipt of a code to an address is so easily worked around, that it stands little chance of alleviating the issue?
  4. What data was made available to applications (quizzes, surveys, etc.) and what, if any, considerations were there about the potential for abuse of that data and of the access granted to application developers in general? If there wasn’t, doesn’t that clearly articulate the issue, that providing data access to developers, and the economic incentives that entailed, trumped consideration of users?
  5. While Facebook wants to talk about the control users have over their data, isn’t that highly misleading? That, while users may be able to select who sees what in a front-end sense, that all that data, even content that users delete, is stored by Facebook, subject to data retention policies, and easily accessible to respond to subpoenas? For instance, if a user posts content that is later removed, either by Facebook for violating policies or by the user, such as posts that incite violence or plan an illegal activity, and in many cases make Facebook a one-stop shop for procuring evidence of criminal activities, regardless of how diligently a user removes such content, in essence eroding the claim that users have control and placing that squarely in the hands of Facebook?
  6. Given Facebook’s track record with arbitrarily making changes to user’s privacy settings, changing settings with the introduction of “new features” or “improvements” to settings that positively benefit the company, and often impact site users, is it really appropriate to say that users have any control over their data and their privacy at all? Isn’t it fair to say that Facebook has a consistent track record of erring on the side of advertising revenue, not the side of protecting and respecting user’s choices?
  7. With regard to small businesses, doesn’t the site’s boosted posts feature, the feature of the site in which business have to pay to connect users to their content, the same content that users who have followed that business have affirmatively said that they want to see, in order for those users to see it, create a situation in which Facebook is countermanding the concept that users are in control of what they do on the site and their ability to make connections if, in essence, users are only connected to the content that they want to see if the provider of the content pays for them to see it? And can Facebook really claim to support net neutrality if it’s already creating separate “lanes” for content on its site? And given the controls for boosted posts, such as age, gender, etc., doesn’t this feature essentially create opportunities for businesses to discriminate against users in a variety of protected classes, depending upon the nature of that content? Example, housing discrimination, employment discrimination?
  8. How possible would it be for a landlord or an employer using this feature, to post a housing or job description and specifically target it to a heterosexual, Christian, Republican, male, between 25 and 45, with no kids, who is white? How about a lesbian, atheist, Democrat, female, between 18 and 34, with kids, and is Hispanic? Essentially, how granular are the controls, and what if any role does Facebook see itself as having in ensuring that prospective tenants and employees are not discriminated against?
  9. How easy would it be to offer the same job description, at varying pay rates, to different demographic sets, for instance offering a higher pay to women than men, or vice versa? Or to use boosted posts to post the same apartment with different rent amounts, security deposits, etc. allowing landlords to select tenants by making the same apartment attractive or unattractive to different demographic segments of prospective tenants?
  10. How actively does Facebook monitor or intervene in a case where their platform is being actively used for such discrimination? Does the company feel that their users, if they realized, would provide the same information in their profiles if they knew it could be used to discriminate against them?
  11. What is Facebook’s stance on users providing demographic information that makes them appear younger/older, of a different gender, religion, ethnicity, etc. to avoid discrimination or to avoid targeted marketing? Has Facebook considered allowing users to opt out of being targeted or excluded from boosted content based on their demographics without requiring them to pre-consider their answers and their desirability or non-desirability to companies boosting posts? Essentially, allowing users the same control over boosted posts that they have over targeted advertising.