Mark Duckerberg: Second Congressional grilling sees boss dodge questions like a pro

Zuck shows curious amnesia about his own business

'I'll tell you what you didn't know...'

The star intervention of the session, though, came near the end when - probably as exhausted by the proceedings as the rest of the Congress-watchers - Representative Debbie Dingell (D-MI) wasted not a second in conveying exactly what she thought of Zuck’s performance.

“Some things were striking during this conversation,” she said, in a calm tone that belied what was coming next.

“As CEO, you didn’t know some key facts. You didn’t know about major court cases regarding privacy policies. You didn’t know the FTC doesn’t having fining authorities… You don’t know what a shadow profile is… You didn’t know how many apps you need to audit… You didn’t know how many other firms have been sold data [by Aleksander Kogan] even though you were asked that question yesterday… You don’t even know all the kinds of information Facebook is collecting from its users.”

Dingell then told him what she knows about Facebook - that it has trackers all over the web, in the form of Pixel code and Like and Share buttons (the number of which in circulation Zuck couldn’t put a figure on - he’ll gave to get back to Congress on that one) - and how she feels about his reassuring words.

'We thought we could trust the devs'

Despite this and other notable performances from Doris Matsui (D-CA), Janice Schakowsky (D-IL) and Jerry McNerney (D-CA), Zuckerberg broadly got away with falling back on stock responses that leant heavily on how much things were going to change and placing the blame elsewhere.

In some cases, this was blatant: Facebook put its trust in an app developer (Kogan) who represented that they would respect the data, but then went out and sold it to a third party.

Before his actions were revealed, Zuckerberg said “we thought that when developers told us they weren’t going to sell data” they meant it. Now, he said, the biz knows it “can’t just take developers’ word for it, we need to go in and enforce it”.

In a bid to emphasise the dodgy devs point - or distract from the fact there are the “tens of thousands” of apps that had similar levels of access to users’ friends’ data before it cut off some Graph API permissions in 2015 - Zuckerberg also threw some shade at Kogan’s academic institution.

“There’s a number of researchers building similar apps, so we do need to understand whether something bad is going on at Cambridge University overall that would require stronger action from us,” he said.

Academics fight back

The university took a rather dim view of this statement.

“We would be surprised if Mr Zuckerberg was only now aware of research at the University of Cambridge looking at what an individual’s Facebook data says about them,” a spokesman said.

“Our researchers have been publishing such research since 2013 in major peer-reviewed scientific journals, and these studies have been reported widely in international media. These have included one study in 2015 led by Dr Aleksandr Spectre (Kogan) and co-authored by two Facebook employees.

“We wrote to Facebook on 21 March to ask it to provide evidence to support its allegations about Dr Kogan. We have yet to receive a response.”

The other group of people who were, rather more subtly, handed a sizeable chunk of the blame for Zuckerborg’s mass data collection are the users.

They have the ability to change all of this information, the CEO repeated time and again. They have to grant access to these apps; they can turn off advertising tracking (although “it would make the ads less relevant”) and if they really want to, they can delete Facebook.

What Zuckerberg fails to acknowledge here is that in some countries Facebook is one of the only ways of connecting, or - as noted by Representative Frank Pallone (D-NJ) at the start - for many businesses Facebook is their only online presence, and there are precious few competitors.

"In the past few weeks we have found out – yet again – that information about ourselves, and our friends and contacts was used far beyond what we intended. We have been profiled, pigeon-holed, politically manipulated, and played like pawns in someone else’s chess game," said Sally Shipman Wentworth, VP of global policy development at the Internet Society.

I’d challenge you to find anyone who says “yes – that’s what I was signing up for, and I knew it, and I am entirely comfortable with where we’ve ended up. No matter how or when it started to widen, this gap between what we reasonably expect and what is actually being done with our personal information reflects an unforgivable breach of ethics.

Of course the problem with Zuckerberg’s argument is that, as Billy Long (R-MO) pointed out when telling the exec that the table he was sitting at was big enough for ten people, “if we invited everyone who’d read your Terms of Service, we’d be able to fit them on”.

But it seems that even the boss’s pals aren’t that privacy-savvy. Because when asked whether his data was included in the batch sold by Kogan, Zuckerberg replied: “Yes”.

So at least there was something in the testimony for us to Like. ®

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