House Critics Grill Zuckerberg Over Political Bias, Privacy

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Wednesday endured a second day of congressional criticism during a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. His appearance followed an intense session with the Senate Commerce and Judiciary Committees a day earlier.

Some members of the House committee questioned whether Facebook tracked users offline. Some blasted what they claimed were repeated instances of censorship, alleging that legitimate conservative viewpoints were flagged as hate speech.

Zuckerberg also faced a number of questions about whether Facebook had tracked the activity of non-Facebook users, or whether it had tracked members’ activities after they logged off the site.

Algorithm Angst

Rep. Ben Lujan, D-N.M., asked Zuckerberg about the privacy rights of people who were not Facebook users, but whose data nevertheless was collected by Facebook.

Zuckerberg denied knowledge of “shadow profiles” of people who were not Facebook members, but said that Facebook did collect data on non-members for security purposes, in part to prevent data scraping.

Committee members questioned Zuckerberg repeatedly about several recent incidents they found troubling. In one case, they asked about Facebook’s blocking of conservative vloggers Diamond and Silk as “unsafe.” They also questioned Facebook’s rejection of an ad from the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, that depicted the crucifixion of Jesus.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., who chairs the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, asked Zuckerberg if Facebook subjectively manipulated algorithms to prioritize or censor speech.

Facebook does not think of what it does as censoring speech, Zuckerberg responded, saying the company works to protect the site from extreme behavior like terrorism.

“Let me tell you something right now,” Blackburn said. “Diamond and Silk is not terrorism.”

She later tweeted about plans to address Facebook algorithms in upcoming forums.

I asked Mark Zuckerberg if Facebook subjectively manipulates algorithms to push their own agenda, and censor conservatives. We look forward to having another hearing on algorithms soon to address this important issue.

— Marsha Blackburn (@MarshaBlackburn) April 11, 2018

Blackburn and other representatives asked Zuckerberg if he supported regulations that would create new privacy rights for Facebook users, with some pointing to Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation, which takes effect next month, as a model for protecting users from exploitation.

While Zuckerberg said Facebook planned to extend its GDPR compliance globally, he appeared hesitant to make that commitment as an official guarantee.

The questions lawmakers have posed to Zuckerberg over the past couple of days indicate that many members of Congress have a limited understanding of the intricacies of data collection, the use of algorithms, and the business models of Facebook and other social media companies.

It’s unclear whether Congress will be able to follow through on promises to legislate comprehensive privacy protections, observed Nate Cardozo, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

“We’re skeptical of Congress’ ability to get meaningful reforms passed,” he told the E-Commerce Times, “but we look forward to reviewing any statutory language as it’s proposed.”

Cambridge Analytica Fallout

Meanwhile, as Zuckerberg was testifying in Congress, the board at Cambridge Analytica on Wednesday announced that acting Chief Executive Alexander Tayler would step down from his post and return to his former role as chief data officer.

The resumption of his former post would allow him to focus on the various technical investigations and queries, the company said. It did not name a new acting CEO.

The British Information Commissioner’s Office executed a search warrant on Cambridge Analytica late last month and seized a large number of documents.

The House of Commons Digital committee investigating fake news will hear return testimony next week from Alexander Nix, the suspended chief executive of Cambridge Analytica.

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