7 min read

Mark Zuckerberg yesterday (April 10 2018) testified in front of congress. That’s a pretty big deal. Congress has been waiting some time for the chance to grill the Facebook chief, with “Zuck” resisting. So the fact that he finally had his day in D.C. indicates the level of pressure currently on him. Some have lamented the fact that senators were given so little time to respond to Zuckerberg – there was no time to really get deep into the issues at hand. However, although it’s true that there was a lot that was superficial about the event, if you looked closely, there was plenty to take away from it.

Here are the 5 of the most important things we learned from Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony in front of Congress.

Policy makers don’t really understand that much about tech

The most shocking thing to come out of Zuckerberg’s testimony was unsurprising; the fact that some of the most powerful people in the U.S. don’t really understand the technology that’s being discussed. More importantly this is technology they’re going to have to be making decisions on. One Senator brought printouts of Facebook pages and asked Zuckerberg if these were examples of Russian propaganda groups. Another was confused about Facebook’s business model – how could it run a free service and still make money?

Those are just two pretty funny examples, but the senators’ lack of understanding could be forgiven due to their age. However, there surely isn’t any excuse for 45 year old Senator Brian Schatz to misunderstand the relationship between Whatsapp and Facebook.

Chris Cillizza argued on CNN that “the senate’s tech illiteracy saved Zuckerberg”. He explained:

The problem was that once Zuckerberg responded – and he largely stuck to a very strict script in doing so – the lack of tech knowledge among those asking him questions was exposed. The result? Zuckerberg was rarely pressed, rarely forced off his talking points, almost never made to answer for the very real questions his platform faces.

This lack of knowledge led to proceedings being less than satisfactory for onlookers. Until this knowledge gap is tackled, it’s always going to be a challenge for political institutions to keep up with technological innovators. Ultimately, that’s what makes regulation hard.

Zuckerberg is still held up as the gatekeeper of tech in 2018

Zuckerberg is still held up as a gatekeeper or oracle of modern technology. That is probably a consequence of the point above. Because there’s such a knowledge gap within the institutions that govern and regulate, it’s more manageable for them to look to a figurehead. That, of course, goes both ways – on the one hand Zuckerberg is a fountain of knowledge, someone who can solve these problems. On the other hand is part of a Silicon Valley axis of evil, nefariously plotting the downfall of democracy and how to read your WhatsApp messages.

Most people know that neither is true. The key point, though, is that however you feel about Zuckerberg, he is not the man you need to ask about regulation. This is something that Zephy Teachout argues on the Guardian. “We shouldn’t be begging for Facebook’s endorsement of laws, or for Mark Zuckerberg’s promises of self-regulation” she writes.

In fact, one of the interesting subplots of the hearing was the fact that Zuckerberg didn’t actually know that much. For example, a lot has been made of how extensive his notes were. And yes, you certainly would expect someone facing a panel of Senators in Washington to be well-briefed. But it nevertheless underlines an important point – the fact that Facebook is a complex and multi-faceted organization that far exceeds the knowledge of its founder and CEO. In turn, this tells you something about technology that’s often lost within the discourse: the fact that its hard to consider what’s happening at a superficial or abstract level without completely missing the point.

There’s a lot you could say about Zuckerberg’s notes. One of the most interesting was the point around GDPR. The note is very prescriptive: it says “Don’t say we already do what GDPR requires.” Many have noted that this throws up a lot of issues, not least how Facebook plan to tackle GDPR in just over a month if they haven’t moved on it already. But it’s the suggestion that Zuckerberg was completely unaware of the situation that is most remarkable here. He doesn’t even know where his company is on one of the most important pieces of data legislation for decades.

Facebook is incredibly naive

If senators were often naive – or plain ignorant – on matters of technology – during the hearing, there was plenty of evidence to indicate that Zuckerberg is just as naive. The GDPR issue mentioned above is just one example. But there are other problems too.

You can’t, for example, get much more naive than thinking that Cambridge Analytica had deleted the data that Facebook had passed to it. Zuckerberg’s initial explanation was that he didn’t realize that Cambridge Analytica was “not an app developer or advertiser”, but he corrected this saying that his team told him they were an advertiser back in 2015, which meant they did have reason to act on it but chose not to. Zuckerberg apologized for this mistake, but it’s really difficult to see how this would happen. There almost appears to be a culture of naivety within Facebook, whereby the organization generally, and Zuckerberg specifically, don’t fully understand the nature of the platform it has built and what it could be used for.

It’s only now, with Zuckerberg talking about an “arms race” with Russia that this naivety is disappearing. But its clear there was an organizational blindspot that has got us to where we are today.

Facebook still thinks AI can solve all of its problems

The fact that Facebook believes AI is the solution to so many of its problems is indicative of this ingrained naivety.

When talking to Congress about the ‘arms race’ with Russian intelligence, and the wider problem of hate speech, Zuckerberg signaled that the solution lies in the continued development of better AI systems. However, he conceded that building systems actually capable of detecting such speech could be 5 to 10 years away.

This is a problem. It’s proving a real challenge for Facebook to keep up with the ‘misuse’ of its platform. Foreign Policy reports that:

“…just last week, the company took down another 70 Facebook accounts, 138 Facebook pages, and 65 Instagram accounts controlled by Russia’s Internet Research Agency, a baker’s dozen of whose executives and operatives have been indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller for their role in Russia’s campaign to propel Trump into the White House.”

However, the more AI comes to be deployed on Facebook, the more that the company is going to have to rethink how it describes itself. By using algorithms to regulate the way the platform is used, there comes to be an implicit editorializing of content. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean we again return to this final problem…

There’s still confusion about the difference between a platform and a publisher

Central to every issue that was raised in Zuckerberg’s testimony was the fact that Facebook remains confused about whether it is a platform or a publisher. Or, more specifically, the extent to which it is responsible for the content on the platform.

It’s hard to single out Zuckerberg here because everyone seems to be confused on this point. But it’s interesting that he seems to have never really thought about the problem. That does seem to be changing, however. In his testimony, Zuckerberg said that “Facebook was responsible” for the content on its platforms. This statement marks a big change from the typical line used by every social media platform – that platforms are just platforms, they bear no responsibility for what is published on them.

However, just when you think Zuckerberg is making a definitive statement, he steps back. He went on to say that “I agree that we are responsible for the content, but we don’t produce the content.” This statement hints that he still wants to keep the distinction between platform and publisher. Unfortunately for Zuckerberg, that might be too late.

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