Do you remember the time when you gave your first job interview and how you were feeling? Nerved, fumbling and sweating to give perfect answers so that you can grab the opportunity. Then you can have an idea how the social media giant, Mark Zuckerberg, was feeling when he sat down during a public Senate hearing in the US.
Mark was grilled over Facebook’s content security, privacy, and advertising policies after the aftermath of Facebook’s data leak by the Cambridge Analytica which blew trumpets on the same.
In addition to the Cambridge Analytica data leak, Zuck fielded questions on issues such as data collection, privacy controls, hate speech and political bias, as well as its views on regulation.
Here are some key takeaways from the hearing from the hearing:
1. Compared with his public-speaking performances just a few years ago, Zuckerberg appeared quite composed and polished…and not just because he ditched his trademark hoodie for a suit and tie. Though there were a few uncomfortable pauses along the way, Zuck did a solid job of reiterating Facebook’s talking points about its privacy, data-sharing and content-monitoring policies, and of appearing contrite about prior missteps. He was also more often than not was quick to counter when a Senator took aim at the company’s past or present behaviour.
2. Likely to aid public perceptions of Zuckerberg’s performance: Many of the Senators questioning him were clearly unfamiliar with basic details about how Facebook functions. At various times, Zuck had to point out that Facebook offers privacy controls that let users decide what data is used for ad targeting, that data about individual users isn’t shared with advertisers, that users can delete their Facebook accounts and the data associated with it and that the programming interfaces (APIs) that allowed an app used by just 300,000 Facebook users to get data about 87 million of them were revised in 2014. He even got a question about whether Facebook stores the data it uses for ad targeting, and had to shoot down a conspiracy theory about Facebook recording audio from phones for data-harvesting purposes.
3. But while investors can take heart in Zuck’s PR job, the openness of some Senators to tighter privacy regulations is a cause for a little concern. In particular, multiple Senators signalled they’d support policies similar to the GDPR regulations the EU will begin enforcing in May. Among other things, those rules require consumers to opt into any data-collection that’s done for the purposes of ad targeting. Zuck indicated a willingness to support such regulations, albeit while adding the details need to be worked out.
4. But as others have argued, GDPR-type regulations might indirectly benefit larger platform owners such as Facebook and Alphabet/Google (GOOGL), since it could be easier for them to get user consent for data-tracking than smaller platforms/publishers and independent online ad firms. COO Sheryl Sandberg has previously insisted that GDPR regulations won’t have a big impact on Facebook’s European ad sales, and the company has already promised to make GDPR-type privacy controls available to users globally.
5. One other concern: Some Senators believe the Cambridge leak, and more generally the data-sharing policies Facebook had in place before 2014, put it in violation of a 2011 FTC decree that required the company to obtain user content for any data-sharing beyond what’s approved through a user’s privacy setting. With the FTC already probing the Cambridge leak, it wouldn’t be shocking if Facebook is hit with a hefty fine over the matter before the dust settles. Zuck, for his part, insists Facebook’s pre-2014 policies didn’t violate the consent decree.
6. On several occasions, Zuck stressed the large role that AI/machine learning algorithms will play in helping Facebook automatically flag content going forward, and that much work still needs to be done before the algorithms can more broadly take over from human content-monitors. He noted, for example, that AI is already pretty good at flagging pro-terrorist propaganda, but has a much harder time figuring out what is and isn’t hate speech.
7. One interesting detail shared by Zuck during the hearing: Over 100 billion pieces of content (photos, videos, messages, status updates, etc.) are shared daily on Facebook proper, Messenger and Instagram. For context, Facebook has 1.4 billion daily active users (DAUs) for its core service and Messenger at the end of Q4, and the company has previously said users spend over 50 minutes per day on average across the three aforementioned platforms.