Mark Zuckerberg testified today in a Senate hearing about the exposure of upwards of 87 million accounts' sensitive data to Cambridge Analytica and about Russia's potential hijacking of the platform in the 2016 election. Here are my main takeaways from reading and watching portions of the hearing:
- Zuckerberg is a total robot. He was smart, poised, respectful, and professional. On the other hand, to me he sounded completely inhuman. He was clearly well coached for his appearance, but only in the sense that he and his advisors calculated exactly what he had to say to avoid escalation and sharp legislative action. He sounded like a kid who has been sent to the principals office and is trying to avoid meaningful punishment—composed, perhaps a little nervous, pretending that everything was an accident, and facetiously apologetic.
- The stakes were high for Facebook, but they also weren’t. Whereas a financial brokerage must abide by complex regulations and face steep legal penalties if it does not, I am not aware of any meaningful regulatory infrastructure with which Facebook must comply (at least not until May of this year with GDPR in the EU). The stakes were high for Facebook today, but I don’t believe that they were as high as many made it out to seem. Unlike the President of a bank testifying on illegal trades or deceptive lending practices, Zuckerberg wasn’t going to jail, no matter how bad the hearing went. It was severe relative to Facebook, but perhaps not quite as severe in the grand scheme of congressional hearings. (Perhaps I should also clarify that I am speaking not of the severity of the issue at hand but rather of the potential severity of the fallout. That said, this is an ‘armchair opinion’—my perspective is as an uninformed onlooker; perhaps there’s something I—or even the general public—doesn’t know about what’s going on.)
- They were no ‘mistakes.’ Zuckerberg kept on calling the Cambridge Analytica scandal a “mistake.” I have a hard time believing that a company whose entire business model is selling private information and human attention can call placing that same data in the “wrong hands” a mistake. The mistake is that they were caught. After all, Zuckerberg called his users (pardon the profanity) “dumb fucks” in 2010 when asked why they gave him all their personal information.
- This is a privacy issue, not a speech issue. This is what I’m most concerned with in the follow up to this Facebook outcry. To me, there are two intertwined stories—scandals—here: that Facebook exposed 87 million accounts’ sensitive data to Cambridge Analytica, and that Facebook the platform (independently of Cambridge Analytica) was leveraged as an election tool by nation state level attackers (e.g. Russia’s IRA). The former scandal is an issue of privacy, and the latter is an issue of how easily human attention can be bought, sold, and manipulated on Facebook. This is not an issue of freedom of speech.
- Facebook is fundamentally at odds with privacy. I see no way that Facebook can part from its attention-harvesting data-mining ways. It’s at the core of the company’s business model, after all.
I look forward to seeing how this all unfolds. I was and remain unabashedly anti-Facebook (the commoditization of both human privacy and attention strikes me as absolutely Orwellian), though I also recognize the utility in having nearly everyone in the developed world at your fingertips. I’m lucky enough to have not created an account when I was 12; if I had, I can say with near certainty that I wouldn’t be able to quit.