Viewpoint: Mr Zuckerberg Goes to Washington

Following Mark Zuckerbergs testimony in front of the US Senate, Tim Maytom asks whether the bubble surrounding the tech world will ever be pierced, and what that means for users

A few weeks ago, I attended the Adobe Summit in Las Vegas and, as part of one of the keynote presentations, heard representatives from Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter discuss the position of social in the world today. It was just as the extent of the Cambridge Analytica scandal was beginning to be understood, and as such, everyone was keen to hear what was said on the topic. Unfortunately, those of us hoping for hard-hitting questions and honest answers were sorely disappointed, with the executives from Facebook and Twitter sticking very closely to the party line.

What we did get was a healthy dose of irony, and perhaps a glimpse at the level of self-delusion that is entrenched in the culture of these companies. Briefly addressing the Cambridge Analytica events (although never by name), Gene Alston, vice president of partnerships at Facebook said “One of the things we’ve talked about and you’ve seen Mark speak a lot about is our role to make sure that we protect the privacy of our users…if we can’t protect your information, we don’t deserve it”.

Later, Kay Madati, vice president & global head of content partnerships at Twitter claimed that “I have no content business if we can’t provide a brand-safe environment.” Given the recent events surrounding Facebook and the endemic issues with harassment and abuse on Twitter, a lot of eyebrows were raised at both of these statements among the more cynical members of the audience.

Yesterday, we got another look at the bubble in which these large tech firms suspend themselves, as 44 US Senators grilled Mark Zuckerberg over data privacy and Russian disinformation on Facebook. Whether these Senate hearings will have any substantive impact on Facebook’s continued operations is anyone’s guess. However, the mere sight of almost half of one of the United State’s chambers of government crowding round to question a single CEO gives you an idea of how big of an impact Facebook has, and how much weight must be brought to bear to have any kind of influence over it.

The testimony and subsequent questions yielded some very interesting information, but the overall impression that I got from watching was of a company scrambling to undo mistakes that it had made in the past, while working to minimise its responsibility for its own decisions. More tellingly, there seemed to be very little in terms of an attitude change from Facebook in the wake of this scandal. As representatives from the social network noted when the news first broke, Cambridge Analytica wasn’t a data breach as far as Facebook were concerned, because it had offered the data willingly, as part of its standard agreement with developers.

That policy has since changed, updated in 2014, but the question remains why Facebook allowed it in the first place, and how it didn’t foresee that this type of agreement could be used to scrape up data on millions of users who never knowingly agreed to share it. Users who were on Facebook during its earlier days doubtless remember the sort of Wild West atmosphere that existed when third-party apps first popped up on platform, and one could barely move for Farmville requests and Vampire invitations. How many of us understood what access each app had to our data, and the data of our friends? And did Facebook make any effort to make that information easy to access, or easy to understand?

One of the other things evident from Zuckerberg’s testimony is the poor level of digital education among US Senators, with Senator Orrin Hatch seemingly unaware that Facebook ran ads to bring in revenue, and Senator Brian Schatz unable to grasp that ‘e-mails’ within WhatsApp were encrypted. But if US Senators, who have presumably been prepared for such a high-profile session by well-informed staff, still struggle with such issues, should we expect better from the average user?

Senator Hatch actually made a valid point during his question, despite clearly not being a Facebook user, asking Zuckerberg “do users understand what they’re agreeing to – to when they access a website or agree to terms of service? Are websites up-front about how they extract value from users, or do they hide the ball? Do consumers have the information they need to make an informed choice regarding whether or not to visit a particular website?”

“We talked a little bit earlier around the complexity of laying out these long privacy policies,” replied Zuckerberg. “It’s hard to say that people fully understand something when it’s only written out in a long legal document. This needs – the stuff needs to be implemented in a way where people can actually understand it, where consumers can – can understand it, but that can also capture all the nuances of how these services work in a way that doesn’t – that’s not overly restrictive on – on providing the services.”

The fact that no-one ever reads the Terms of Service for any digital product has become practically a running joke when discussing tech, but it also speaks to the bubble that Silicon Valley exists in. Consumers are offered fantastic services, seemingly free at the point of delivery, as long as they are willing to sign away their data, but very few actually understand that value exchange.

The details of it are tucked away in long legal documents that are easily dismissed, and the fact that tech firms, so focused on user experience, have made no effort to improve such an important part of the process means they are either deeply deluded as to the tech and legal literacy of the average user, or worse, being wilfully obscure when it comes to how users are trading away their information.

To return briefly to the Adobe Summit, one of the other sessions involved Adobe engineers demonstrating new tools that would allow users to deploy AI to replace and edit elements of photographs in a manner of seconds. Users can, for example, draw on a pool of stock images to replace the foreground of a dramatic landscape image if they don’t like the lighting. It was impressive to see, but given that barely two months ago, I was writing here about AI being used to falsely create pornographic videos from Instagram feeds, I wonder if any of the developers behind this latest innovation had thought about the consequences of putting such a tool out there for general use?

Who knows if a round of questioning by 44 Senators had any lasting impact on Mark Zuckerberg or the wider tech establishment, but the bubble around Silicon Valley desperately needs piercing. Tech companies need to think through the wider implications of their decisions before simply signing off on the latest tech. The internet has been around long enough now that everyone knows – if there is a way a technology can be exploited for gain or malicious use, someone will find it. Tech companies need to stop offering the crueller elements of humanity such a rich toolkit.