Business

Facebook’s Apology Tour Just Raises More Questions

The ones Mark Zuckerberg can’t or won’t answer are known by now. They can be the basis for a legislative agenda

Why the smiles? 

Photographer: John Thys/AFP/Getty Images

A pattern has emerged in Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg’s response to various legislative bodies’ interest in his company. The more informed and pointed questions legislators want to ask, the less time Zuckerberg is willing to spend answering them. That should mean it’s probably time to stop asking and start acting in specific areas that have been adequately pinpointed even without Zuckerberg’s responses.

The Facebook CEO spent 10 hours on Capitol Hill dealing with questions that often showcased U.S. legislators’ ignorance about the internet in general and Facebook in particular. He spent an hour and a half in the European Parliament on Tuesday, of which only 25 minutes counted toward answering far more informed questions from parliament members. He has dodged repeated invitations to appear before the U.K. parliament, specifically, its Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, even by video link; it is this committee that has, through a painstaking process, arrived at the most specific questions on Facebook’s data collection and political advertising practices.

Tuesday’s event at the European Parliament was useful in outlining the European agenda vis-a-vis the social network. Here are the most pressing questions, compiled from the ones legislators asked:

  • Can Facebook guarantee that another data scandal, like the one involving the unauthorized use of personal data by Cambridge Analytica, won’t take place? Facebook has yet to explain why users were not informed about the Cambridge Analytica data leak when Facebook learned about it. And we still don’t know how Facebook controls third-party compliance with its policies.
  • Is Facebook really complying with the European Union’s new privacy rules? It’s not clear at all if users are really only required to consent to providing data that’s absolutely necessary for the use of Facebook’s service. Or whether Facebook has really transferred the data of those users not covered by it from European servers to keep it out of the EU’s reach. If people leave Facebook, Zuckerberg doesn’t tell us what it’ll do with their data.
  • Is there a way for a user to opt out of targeted advertising completely? People also need to know what’s required to prevent Facebook from assembling the “shadow profile” of a user from data collected on non-Facebook sites and whether these profiles are commercialized. Nor is it clear whether a non-Facebook user can see (and delete) such a profile.
  • Why is the number of fake accounts growing (from 2-3 percent as reported last year to 3-4 percent this year)? Recall, Facebook issued assurances that it’s fighting their spread.
  • Is Facebook a media company that curates content or a neutral platform? Facebook needs to explain how does it go about removing offensive and illegal content without censoring legitimate speech.
  • Can Facebook guarantee that political advertising on its platform will comply with national laws going forward? If so, how will it do so? Facebook isn’t clear about whether or how it has altered its business model to make sure it won’t be abused to break campaign laws.
  • Does Facebook have any direct competitors, and if so, who are they? If Facebook is effectively a monopoly, it’s not clear if there’s any compelling reason not to break it up (for example, by forcing it to spin off Messenger and WhatsApp).
  • Would Facebook commit to releasing the full list of its legal entities and the amount of taxes they pay in every country where they operate? 

Zuckerberg has not provided satisfying answers to any of these questions, sticking closely to his milquetoast talking points — a tactic that he must think works well for him, since the company’s revenue and stock price appear to be impervious to any concerns about its practices. He has promised written responses to legislators angered by his blatant evasiveness. One doesn’t need to wait for them, however, to see how thing will go. The U.K. parliament’s digital committee is already engaged in a written exchange with Rebecca Stimson, Facebook’s head of public policy in the U.K., and the answers she provides often have little to do with the questions asked.

The committee’s follow-ups to these answers can be seen in a document made public on Monday; often, they are more specific and pointed versions of the questions asked in the European Parliament. The U.K. parliament members, for example, are interested in how Facebook obtains consent for data collection on each specific outside site; what specific targeted advertising tools Russian trolls used in the U.S. and the U.K.; how much money Facebook makes from the advertising of fraudulent products and services; why Facebook doesn’t publish revenue figures by country.

The list goes on. That’s why the digital committee would like Zuckerberg to appear before it. It’s clear from his appearances in Washington and Brussels, however, that even if he showed up, it would mostly be an exercise in evasion. 

That means it’s time to end the discovery stage of regulators’ post-Cambridge Analytica dealings with Facebook. The company has made its position, and the limits of its ability and willingness to tackle known problems, as clear as it cares to make them. The questions that remain unanswered or answered in an unsatisfactory way — that is, pretty much all the questions on the above list — require action.

The debate should turn to devising the best regulatory mechanisms for the questions to go away. That’s not an impossible task for agencies not burdened with Facebook’s primary motivation — to make money off users’ data, whatever Zuckerberg might say about putting profit second to users’ interests.

Facebook is also the prime candidate for an immediate investigation into its compliance with the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation. As far as I can see as a user, it’s not getting express consent for data collection on each website that harvests information for it, and it requires people to agree to more such harvesting than is strictly needed to use its service. The EU should move quickly to force it into compliance.

Zuckerberg’s fake apology tour and his charade of answering questions have gone on long enough. The onus is now on regulators in the U.S. and Europe, including the U.K., to fix the obvious issues — relevant not only to Facebook but to most large internet platforms — in the near future. If they fail to do so, it won’t be Zuckerberg’s fault but theirs.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net

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