Can Facebook be trusted now that its founder has testified?

By Elton Gomes

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg managed to salvage Facebook’s reputation in the five-hour hearing before the joint session of the Commerce and Judiciary committees on Tuesday. Zuckerberg in his debut testimony in front of Congress emphasised over and over again what Facebook has been trying to tell the world since the data hack that users are in control of the data they share.

Key takeaways

“It’s clear now that we didn’t do enough to prevent these tools from being used for harm as well. That goes for fake news, foreign interference in elections, and hate speech, as well as developers and data privacy,” Zuckerberg said in his opening remarks. 

Zuckerberg seemed unruffled throughout the questioning and managed to answer all questions without breaking a sweat, though slight backtracking ensued. Shares of Facebook were up by 4.5% on Tuesday after the testimony, the highest it has been since the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke out weeks ago.

In fact, when reviewing the testimony, we observe that Zuckerberg only seemed under pressure when questioned by California Sen. Kamala Harris who insistently asked about why Facebook only came out with a statement about Cambridge Analytica after media outlets revealed the massive data breach this year when the company had known about this since 2015.

“Are you aware of anyone in the leadership at Facebook who was in a conversation where a decision was made not to inform your users?” Harris inquired. “Or do you believe no such conversation ever took place?”

“I am not sure whether there was a conversation about that,” Zuckerberg replied to the senator.

Each of the senators got five minutes to question the founder, and they covered a wide variety of questions including, terms of service of Facebook, fake news, the suspicion surrounding privacy and whether Facebook is listening in on conversations, censorship and much more.

However, an important question that arises is did the senators have a comprehensive idea of how Facebook works? According to the various media sources, the Congressional panel wasted time by asking questions whose answers could be potentially found on Google.

Facebook is not a monopoly, as per Zuckerberg

Senator Lindsey Graham asked Zuckerberg as to who is Facebook’s biggest competitor, he stated that Facebook has “a lot of competitors.” In a follow up of sorts to the question, Senator Graham then asked Zuckerberg if he thinks the company has a monopoly, to which Zuckerberg replied, ”It certainly doesn’t feel like that to me.”

Regardless of Zuckerberg’s uncertain reply, Facebook does seem to be functioning like a monopoly. Business expansion, on one hand, Facebook has been decimating its rivals by purchasing them.

As Facebook closed deals with Instagram and WhatsApp, the social media giant penetrated our digital lives perhaps even without us knowing about it. Due to Facebook’s immense popularity, millions of users share their personal data on Facebook. Did the Cambridge Analytica scandal seem inevitable? Or is Zuckerberg genuinely looking to clean up Facebook and save face from the privacy mess it has found itself in?

Facebook has a history of releasing user data

Another factor that is important to note is that this is not the social media giants first instance of a wide scale data breach. In 2010, Facebook introduced a new feature called “Instant Personalization.” This feature allegedly shared user data with non-Facebook sites (third party sites) and was by default set at “Allow.” Users had the option of unchecking the “Allow” function in their settings.Similarly, in 2011, a dating site – Lovely Faces – gained access to roughly 2,50,000 publicly accessible pages. The dating site then scraped data from these pages and put the information up on the site.

What did Facebook do in this instance? Barry Schnitt, director of policy communications at Facebook, was quoted by the Wired: “We have taken, and will continue to take, aggressive legal action against organizations that violate these terms. We’re investigating this site and will take appropriate action.”

Again in 2010, information of over 100 million Facebook users was compromised when a security researcher released a file containing users’ names, profile addresses and unique identification numbers. Even though the information in the file can be openly accessed online, the consolidated list made it easier for anyone to look up users’ e-mail addresses, location or any other data. Once again Facebook responded by issuing a statement stating the list was not a threat to those who had no qualms sharing their information publicly.

Facebook appears to overhaul its privacy settings and promise privacy protection. During his testimony, Zuckerberg never denied responsibility for the data breach and even highlighted the steps the company was planning to take and had already taken to address the issue. However, this seems to be a pattern for the social media giant. Although the founder escaped the Congressional testimony unscathed giving a breather to the investors, there is still a long road to ensuring users will be able to trust the company again.

FacebookMark Zuckerberg