Technology can prove confusing for even the most knowledgeable. There were a few moments during Tuesday’s testimony by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg before the Senate Judiciary and Senate Commerce committees that left lawmakers — and viewers and even Zuckerberg — scratching their heads.
Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) asked Zuckerberg whether he’d heard of Peter Thiel’s company Palantir, which specializes in big-data analysis. She added that “some people have referred to [Palantir] as a Stanford Analytica,” suggesting that Palantir may have taught Cambridge Analytica some of its own data-collection methods. Palantir has denied working with Cambridge Analytica, but former Cambridge contractor Christopher Wylie said that some of Palantir’s staff helped work on the models Cambridge was building. Cantwell’s peculiar phrasing of this question, however, left Zuckerberg at a loss for words.
Cross-device tracking (or lack thereof)
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) spent a large portion of his allotted five minutes questioning Zuckerberg about Facebook’s use of cross-device tracking, or the tracking of users across multiple devices like smartphones, computers and TVs.
“I believe we do link people’s accounts between devices in order to make sure that their Facebook and Instagram and their other experiences can be synced between their … devices,” Zuckerberg said. When asked whether that included offline data and data that is “linked not necessarily to Facebook, but some device they went through Facebook on,” he said he wanted to ensure that his answer was accurate and would prefer to have his team follow up with Blunt’s office on the matter.
But Blunt persisted, saying: “That doesn’t seem that complicated to me. You understand this better than I do, but maybe you can explain to me why that’s complicated. Do you track devices that an individual who uses Facebook has, that is connected to the device that they use for their Facebook connection but not necessarily connected to Facebook?” Zuckerberg maintained that he didn’t know the answer to the question, as Blunt continued rewording his questions about Facebook’s cross-device tracking.
Some healthy competition
So who’s Facebook’s biggest competitor? Well that depends. “If I buy a Ford and it doesn’t work well and I don’t like it, I can buy a Chevy,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said. “If I’m upset with Facebook, what’s the equivalent product that I can go sign up for?”
In his response, Zuckerberg tried explaining that the social media platform has many competitors across a variety of categories, since Facebook offers so many different services. “I’m not talking about categories,” Graham hit back. “I’m talking about real competition you face. Car companies face a lot of competition if they make a defective car. If it gets out in the world, people stop buying that car and they buy another one. Is there an alternative to Facebook in the private sector?”
Zuckerberg noted that the average American uses as many as eight different apps on a day-to-day basis in order to keep in touch with friends, but Graham emphasized that he was looking to find out if there was any one provider that offered a nearly identical service — not multiple services that cumulatively offer what Facebook does.
Graham also asked whether Zuckerberg felt that Facebook had a monopoly, having no direct competitors, to which Zuckerberg said that “it certainly doesn’t feel like that to me.”
Connecting the dots — or the pipes
Zuckerberg broke out a bit of tech jargon when describing the difference between platforms and internet service providers, referring to the latter as “pipes” and prompting Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) to ask what Zuckerberg meant by that phrasing.
“Nothing in life is free”
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) questioned why so many Facebook users seemed surprised that companies like Facebook and Google share data with advertisers.
“Did any of these individuals ever stop to ask themselves why Facebook and Google don’t charge for access,” Hatch said. “Nothing in life is free. Everything involves trade-offs. If you want something without having to pay money for it, you’re going to have to pay for it in some other way, it seems to me. That’s what we’re seeing here.”
“These great websites that don’t charge for access, they extract value in some other way, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” he added. “As long as they’re up front about what they’re doing. In my mind, the issue here is transparency. It’s consumer choice.”
How do privacy settings work, again?
Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) had more than a few questions about Facebook’s privacy settings and how users are able to tailor who sees their posts.
“Does [allowing users to control who gets to see their content] limit the ability for Facebook to collect and use it?” Fischer asked.
Zuckerberg replied that the platform has various controls in place not only dictating what users’ friends can see, but also what Facebook can access. “So, for example, people have control about face recognition,” he said. “If people don’t want us to be able to help identify when they’re in photos that their friends upload, they turn it off and we won’t store that for them.”
Fischer also asked whether Facebook stores — or shares — user data like text history, user content, activity and device location. Zuckerberg responded that nearly all of those features would require a user to opt in, but are also the things users are looking for when signing up for a platform like Facebook.