Yesterday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified before the United States Congress in the wake of a scandal which saw the personal data of 87 million Facebook users harvested by Cambridge Analytica.
Zuckerberg spoke of the “ongoing arms race” of companies and countries trying to interfere with elections via Facebook, and admitted that he regretted not acting sooner to clamp down on the disinformation spread by Russian trolls during the United States presidental election.
On social media, much was made of the 44 senators questioning Zuckerberg, many of whom seemed to have only a rudimentary knowledge of Facebook (average age of lawmakers at the hearing: 62). While it is beneficial for lawmakers to speak in clear terms and while their ignorance on key issues is partially the fault of Facebook itself (for obscuring its own practices), some questions were at best ill-informed.
senator: my aides have given me this complex multi-part question to read to you in a halting and uncertain voice
zuckerberg: oh no don’t worry about that, our new motto is ‘we fixed it’
senator: that sounds wrong but i don’t know what to ask
— Alexandra Petri (@petridishes) April 10, 2018
Here are the five most clueless questions Zuckerberg was asked.
1. “How do you sustain a business model in which users don’t pay for your service?”
Zuck answered this question plainly and simply: “Senator, we run ads.” While it was beneficial to go over the basics in the hearing, this was perhaps a little too basic. Even the most casual Facebook user is aware of the site’s ad model, as well before Cambridge Analytica, creepy Facebook adverts featured in headlines and pub conversations around the world.
Sen. Hatch: “If [a version of Facebook will always be free], how do you sustain a business model in which users don’t pay for your service?”
Mark Zuckerberg: “Senator, we run ads.” https://t.co/CbFO899XlU pic.twitter.com/bGKWks7zIk
— CBS News (@CBSNews) April 10, 2018
2. “If I’m emailing within WhatsApp, does that ever inform your advertisers?”
This is a regrettable question on a handful of levels. Not only do you not send emails over WhatsApp (come on Senator Brian Schatz! come on!), the app is also end-to-end encrypted (E2EE), meaning the information sent within it can’t be accessed by third parties.
The main problem, however, is how close this question came to being a good one. While Facebook can’t use the content of your WhatsApp messages to serve you ads, the company does use your “account information” to do so. Greater transparency is needed about the types of data WhatsApp shares with Facebook, particularly as privacy campaigners across Europe have been attempting to stop the practice.
3. “Let’s say I’m emailing about Black Panther within WhatsApp, do I get a Black Panther banner ad?”
A follow up question by Schatz there. Come on my man. Come on.
4. “My son Charlie, who’s 13, is dedicated to Instagram, so he’d want to be sure I mention him while I was here with you”
Not a question, let alone a good one.
5. “These unverified divisive pages are on Facebook today *gestures to print out* … are you able to confirm whether they are Russian-created groups? Yes or no?”
Zuckerberg was taken aback by this question by 78-year-old Senator Patrick Leahy. The CEO said he was unable to answer the question, as he obviously isn’t familiar with every single piece of content currently on Facebook. The act of printing out a handful of specific Facebook pages and asking Zuckerberg to identify whether they are co-ordinated by Russians is simply silly, though it did lead to some clarity from Zuck, who explained people running ad campaigns will now need to verify their identity on the site.