Today, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg underwent yet another grilling from members of Congress, this time focused in part on the company’s Libra cryptocurrency project. But the questioning ranged far beyond that, from Facebook’s political advertising policy to its lax approach to safeguarding user data and privacy.
While Zuckerberg continued the dance he often does during these hearings, where he walks the line of being respectful to Congress even though he seems to have little intention of taking their questions seriously, Representative Katie Porter delivered a powerful examination of Zuckerberg’s hypocrisy during the hearing—particularly when it comes to privacy. The Democratic congresswoman from California pointed out the discrepancy between what Zuckerberg and other business executives say during Congressional testimony and the arguments they use to defend themselves in federal court.
Porter, a former law professor at UC Irvine, began her questioning by asking Zuckerberg to affirm “that Facebook cares about user privacy and still holds itself to the standards it articulates in its public policies,” including Facebook’s privacy principles. She cited three of Facebook’s principles: that users have control over their privacy, that users own and can delete their information, and that Facebook is accountable.
“If that’s true that you care about privacy and you’re hewing to these principles, why are you arguing, Facebook, in federal court, that consumers can’t hold you liable for any of these promises,” Porter asked. (Because consumers agree to Facebook’s terms of service, Facebook has argued that those agreements release the company from liability.)
Porter continued: “You are arguing in federal court that in a consumer data privacy lawsuit, in which your own lawyers admit that users’ information was stolen, that the plaintiffs fail to articulate any injury,” she said. “In other words, no harm, no foul. Facebook messed up, but it doesn’t matter. Is that your position?”
Classic. Facebook pretends they care about and will protect user privacy. Meanwhile, an army of their attorneys is marching into federal court to argue it's not their job. Which one is it? pic.twitter.com/xniAlH03sZ
— Rep. Katie Porter (@RepKatiePorter) October 23, 2019
Zuckerberg squirmed and begged that he did not know the full context of the case she was referring to.
“Mr. Zuckerberg, as CEO and the tremendously proportional shareholder of Facebook, you are responsible for the legal arguments that your company makes,” Porter said. “You hire these lawyers. Will you commit to withdrawing this argument and this pleading and never again plead that there’s no liability on Facebook when data breaches occur?”
Zuckerberg’s squirming continued as he declined to answer the question again without more context. Porter then delivered a pointed criticism of Facebook:
“I think your pleading is inconsistent with your privacy principles, and I think the American people are tired of this hypocrisy,” she said. “I’ve been in Congress 10 months and I have already lost count of how many people have sat in exactly that chair and said one thing to me and to Congress and then done another thing in federal court.”
In other words: Facebook’s public statements as a company don’t match up with its legal arguments.
The exchange speaks to a fundamental challenge of regulators as they try to rein in the tentacles of Big Tech—that these companies are in many ways two-faced, with a public-facing brand that does not match the more nefarious actions of their legions of lawyers and corporate lobbyists. And without giving the FTC more teeth to administer punishment to companies for which a $5 billion fine is a light slap on the wrist, or passing a comprehensive consumer privacy law, Congress’s questioning remains little more than talk.
Porter went on to ask about Facebook’s content moderators, who are paid little and given very short breaks during days’ worth of watching violent and obscene videos to keep them off the platform. Would Zuckerberg be willing to spend one hour per day in the conditions they are in, for the same benefits?
The answer? Although he danced around it at first, at least this time, the answer was a more straightforward no.