Zuckerberg testimony: a tipping point for new privacy regs?

Even Facebook's founder says regulation of social media platforms is 'inevitable.' A new EU privacy law may also push corporations to adopt similar practices universally. 

Leah Millis/Reuters
Dozens of cardboard cutouts of Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg sit outside the Capitol building as part of a protest in Washington April 10. Mr. Zuckerberg testified before Congress Tuesday and Wednesday.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has apologized on privacy issues before. Members of Congress have chastised him before. And, despite all the uproar over a massive leak of personal data from Facebook to a political-advertising firm, the vast majority of Facebook users aren’t fleeing the platform.

And yet, something is different this week, with Mr. Zuckerberg coming to Capitol Hill to confront a bipartisan barrage of questions about whether his company, the world’s largest social network, is doing enough to safeguard data and how it’s used.

Attitudes appear to have shifted, both among policymakers and the technology industry itself. Some prominent members of both parties sound inclined to enact new legislation on digital privacy. And, amid criticism from some fellow entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, Zuckerberg himself is voicing at least qualified support for such legislation as well. On Wednesday he told a house panel that regulation is “inevitable.”

That doesn’t mean inevitable this year, given the complexity of the issues and the political realities of an election year. It also doesn’t mean that the digital era’s erosion of privacy will face any fundamental reversal. Yet this moment does reveal what appears to be rising public attention on the risks of this digital era – notably to the health of politics and society.

“This is something I've not seen before,” says Kathryn Montgomery, an American University expert on communications and internet privacy regulation. “It does mark a change in public attitudes and a moment of unprecedented public outrage and criticism of Facebook and digital media.”

A confluence of factors is at work.

First, two story lines in the news have raised alarms for average Americans: evidence of Russian meddling in the US election using social media and – the immediate impetus for Zuckerberg’s testimony this week – the revelation that Cambridge Analytica, a consulting firm employed by the Trump campaign in 2016, had gained improper access to personal data on about 87 million Facebook users.

Beyond that, “we've been hearing a rising tide of criticism ... about some of the other negative aspects of digital culture, [including] the addictive nature of it,” Professor Montgomery says.

Help from Europe?

A new data-privacy law for the European Union, set to go into effect in May, also may influence corporations, she adds. With that law asserting stronger rights for individuals to consciously “opt in” before others obtain and use their digital data, the idea of stronger protections for some (European) customers than others “is going to become increasingly an impossible position to hold,” she predicts.

Yes, American digital culture isn’t the same as Europe’s. And it’s true that many Americans, especially younger generations, take the loss of privacy almost for granted.

But that doesn’t mean the issue isn’t important to Americans of all ages.

Just over half of Americans call Facebook's response to the Cambridge Analytica data incident unacceptable, and say the company could do more, versus 1 in 5 who say the company's response has been acceptable, according to an April poll of 1,500 US residents by CBS News and YouGov.

The poll found that 6 in 10 Americans think the government should impose new regulations on tech firms to better protect personal data, a view shared by most Democrats and Republicans alike.

But, in a sign of the complex trade-offs that many perceive, nearly 4 in 10 respondents oppose new regulation, saying regulations could limit innovation and growth.

Evolving philosophy

While acknowledging such inherent tensions, Zuckerberg this week said he and his company have undergone a fundamental shift in how they view Facebook’s mission.

“Overall, I would say that we're going through a broader philosophical shift in how we approach our responsibility as a company. For the first 10 or 12 years of the company, I viewed our responsibility as primarily building tools that, if we could put those tools in people's hands, then that would empower people to do good things,” he said Tuesday at a hearing convened by the Senate Judiciary and Commerce committees.

“What I think we've learned now across a number of issues – not just data privacy, but also fake news and foreign interference in elections – is that we need to take a more proactive role…. It's not enough to just build tools. We need to make sure that they're used for good.”

He was addressing what both he and lawmakers acknowledge are difficult questions. Notably, is Facebook a tech company or a publishing company?

Although he said Facebook's core business isn’t, directly, publishing, the firm’s role as a content distributor makes it a major force in politics worldwide. It’s not clear how much his self-described tilt toward greater accountability for Facebook will transform the company’s operations. And the shift has come in the wake of withering criticism and related financial risks for the firm. 

But Zuckerberg recently announced a range of changes aimed at allowing users to better control or secure their data. And he says the company by year-end will have essentially doubled its staff (to 20,000 people) devoted to security or content monitoring to weed out things like hate speech or fake news.

Regulation of the 'right' kind?

At a time when some critics have called for Facebook to be regulated like a public utility, Zuckerberg voiced openness to new regulation as long as it’s what he called the “right” kind. He said at one point that the European Union “got things right” in enacting its privacy guidelines.

A number of lawmakers, for their part, said they’re considering new legislation on a number of fronts, from data privacy and child- or consumer-protection to transparency for online political ads.

“This week has illustrated clearly that attitudes toward regulation of Silicon Valley and the internet are shifting amongst congressional legislators,” says Dipayan Ghosh of New America, a Washington-based think tank. Mr. Ghosh has been a policy adviser to both Facebook and the Obama administration.

“National politicians are coming to the conclusion that they must step in to cease the harms that have spread over the internet,” he adds by email.

For example, lawmakers ​questioned Zuckerberg about Facebook​'s​ news​ ​feed or ad platform ​becoming conduits for things like hate speech, racial discrimination in mortgages, and even genocide in Myanmar. Many Republicans, meanwhile, urged that a crackdown on such content not veer into stifling free speech.

Then there’s the sheer time Americans spend online, and questions that researchers have raised about whether the net result is less than healthy.

Pointing to Facebook’s business model rooted in ads and user engagement, Sen. Maggie Hassan (D) of New Hampshire asked “why should we think that Facebook, on its own, will ever truly be able to make the changes that we need it to make to protect Americans' well-being and privacy?”

Privacy erosion won't end

Some analysts doubt Congress will pass meaningful regulation on what's become an impossible-to-reverse trend.

“The horse has not only left the barn” but essentially is an ocean away, says Dewayne Hendricks, a longtime tech-industry entrepreneur in Fremont, Calif., who follows privacy issues. From data-broker companies to government agencies like the National Security Agency, “they gather data on everybody” regardless of steps individuals may take to limit that data collection.

The issues to be addressed go way beyond Facebook itself, he says. A first step is helping people understand that they live now in a world where their actions, location, and behavior are always being tracked, Mr. Hendricks adds. “People can't fight what they don't know about​.” 

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