Zuckerberg Backs Opt-in Legislation 'In Principle'

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg faced an hours-long gantlet of frequently unhappy legislators Tuesday (April 10), in the first of two Hill hearings on privacy and access to Facebook users data.

Among the takeaways of that grilling was that he would support, at least in principle, requiring opt-in consent for any Web site sharing user info with third parties.

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) pressed Zuckerberg on whether he would support legislation--he has just introduced such a bill--that would require obtaining that opt-in permission to share user's information with third parties. Zuckerberg answered "around" the question until ultimately saying he would support such legislation in principle and work with the senator.

The tenor of the hearing was tough, with legislators from both parties suggesting that Facebook was long on promises, but historically short on fixes. Sen John Kennedy (R-Ky.) perhaps summed it up best, and drew a few chuckles in the process. "Mr. Zuckerberg, I come in peace," he said, late in the proceedings. "I don't want to vote to have to regulate Facebook. But, by God, I will."

Looking somewhat out of place in dark suit and tie, the usually casually attired Zuckerberg had been anything but casual in his appearance or approach to the combined committees as he fielded often pointed and persistent questions.

While the legislators conceded his success was emblematic of the American dream, they feared it was also turning into a privacy nightmare.

Zuckerberg was asked if Facebook was too powerful. He didn't answer, though to another question he said he "certainly" didn’t think Facebook was a monopoly.

As he entered the hearing room Photographers massed around him as he sat alone--he was the single witness facing the senators---their cameras clicking and whirring like a swarm of locust.

He conceded during questioning that his company had responsibility over its content--rather than simply being a neutral platform--and that it would be doing more vetting of that content, including via artificial intelligence and doubling the number of people doing content review. He said the company had been founded as an idealistic and optimistic enterprise providing tools for good, but had ultimately not done enough to prevent harms to its users from those who misused those tools.

But he did not say he thought Facebook was a publisher or media company, but instead a tech company.

Related: Sen. Nelson: Facebook Failed Us

Zuckerberg apologized for what he conceded was a breach of users trust in the Cambridge Analytica data sharing incident, but would not concede that Facebook had violated a 2011 Federal Trade Commission consent decree on protection of users' privacy,

something Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) presented what he said was evidence of. Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) appeared unconvinced that Cambridge Analytica's data mining did not violate the plain language of the consent decree.

Blumenthal said he did not feel that Facebook's pledges of improved policies on privacy protection and identifying the advertisers in political and issue ads would cut it, and legislation would be required.

Zuckerberg at several points pointed out that Facebook does not sell any data to advertisers or developers, instead using its data to target ads, say, for skis to a user it knows likes to ski.

When it was his turn to ask questions, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), ranking member of the Commerce Committee, said, flatly, that if Facebook and others didn't get their acts in order, nobody would have privacy.

The Facebook CEO said he was not opposed to applying the "right" privacy legislation to the edge, and would work with Congress to come up with suggestions for such legislation. He said the question is not whether there should be regulation, but what the right regulations should be.

Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) warned that one problem with regulation is that powerful companies like Facebook could lobby themselves into regulation that cemented their positions

Zuckerberg agreed that cementing winners via regulation was a concern, but that that would not be his approach. And while he said he was not opposed to regulations, adding more rules could hurt smaller companies while his company could afford to comply.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) hammered Zuckerberg over allegations of anti-conservative bias. The CEO acknowledged that Silicon Valley's liberal leanings were an understandable cause for questioning, but that his goal was a platform for all forms of expression, with the exception of hate speech, nudity, and whatever else made the community feel "unsafe."

Asked if Facebook was responsible for its content--a key issue--Zuckerberg said yes, but there that was a larger conversation about that to be had, including how much policing of speech the country wanted social media to undertake.

Republicans Mike Lee (Utah) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.) made the point that in order for Facebook to make money, it needs to monetize data, so that it does should not be a surprise to anyone. They said the issues were transparency and control. Users need to know what is being shared and how and have control over whether they want to do that or not.

Asked about preventing future election meddling via Facebook, Zuckerberg said that was a 2018 priority, but that it was an arms race with Russians bent on doing so.

The Facebook CEO was asked whether ISPs and the edge should be subject to the same privacy regs, as some ISPs have proposed.

He said he thought there was a distinction between the "pipes" (ISPs) and the applications that rode on top of that (the edge) that might require disparate treatment, though he suggested that could be more regs for ISPs in some cases, or for the edge in others.

Jonathan Spalter, president of USTelecom, which represents some of those ISPs, fired off a response before the hearing had even concluded.

“Broadband providers have 'leaned in' on providing strong consumer privacy protections for two decades," he said. "Congress should act now to eliminate consumer confusion and level the playing field. It’s time for the leadership of the so called 'platform companies' like Facebook to get on board because it’s in the best interest of American consumers and innovators.”

The hearing was a joint session of the Senate Commerce and Judiciary Committees, which share jurisdiction over communications issues. The hearing room had to have an extra dais to accommodate the 44 senators in attendance.

Facebook is being scrutinized from left, right and center after revelations of Cambridge Analytica's access and monetization of data from as many as 87 million users without their knowledge, including building profiles and sharing them with the Trump campaign.

Zuckerberg said that the site had been built on a reactive model of dealing with problems. They would be flagged and addressed, but that now AI was giving it a better way to prevent problems before they occur and weed out content that should not be on the site.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.