Users own data, but they license it to us: Zuckerberg

Says Facebook may offer subscription service that will offer more protection for users’ data

April 11, 2018 07:36 pm | Updated April 12, 2018 01:10 am IST - WASHINGTON:

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees joint hearing regarding the company’s use and protection of user data on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., on April 10, 2018.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees joint hearing regarding the company’s use and protection of user data on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., on April 10, 2018.

Users own and control the data they share on Facebook, its founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg repeatedly told American lawmakers, who remained skeptical of this argument through two Congressional hearings on the company’s privacy policy on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Personalised advertisement driven by data analytics will remain the mainstay of Facebook’s business model, though the company might offer a subscription model that will shield users from advertisement and offer more protection for their data, Mr. Zuckerberg said. “We think offering an ad-supported service is the most aligned with our mission of trying to help connect everyone in the world, because we want to offer a free service that everyone can afford.”

Mr. Zuckerberg said protecting the integrity of elections around the world from bad actors online would be a priority for the company in 2018, and he mentioned India in this context several times. 

The Facebook CEO repeatedly clarified that the company does not sell data to third parties, but uses the data to help advertisers personalize the message. 

The hearing attended by at least 42 Senators had many lighter moments but the 33-year-old CEO largely appeared strained, trying to explain the company’s technology and business model, without admitting to charges of inadequate data protection. He sidestepped several questions that are at the heart of the privacy debate.

Kamala Harris queries bowl him

Senator Kamala Harris from California, where the company is headquartered, catalogued them, four hours into the hearing. “And those questions have included whether Facebook can track user’s browsing activity even after the user has logged off of Facebook, whether Facebook can track your activity across devices even when you are not logged into Facebook. Who is Facebook’s biggest competition? Whether Facebook may store up to 96 categories of user’s information. Whether you knew whether Kogan’s terms of service and whether you knew if that Kogan could sell or transfer data,” she said.

Mr. Zuckerberg gave evasive answers to these questions and promised that his team would follow up with the senators with details.

The tech entrepreneur, who is the iconic example of the unregulated growth of the digital industry, said he was not against regulation in principle but his position would depend on the details. Several senators pointed out that it is time legislative regulations were put in place to govern the digital sector.

Opt-in rather than opt-out

Several lawmakers also pushed for privacy and data access controls on Facebook that are designed to be ‘opt-in’ rather than ‘opt-out.’

While seeking user consent on data and privacy on Facebook, “would you agree to an opt-in as opposed to an opt-out?,” Senator Richard Blumenthal asked. “Senator, I think that — that certainly makes sense to discuss. And I think the details around this matter a lot,” Mr. Zuckerberg responded.

Senator Brian Schatz sought to know how could the company claim that the data was owned by the users while it was the company that monetized it.

“…you own it in the sense that you chose to put it there, you could take it down anytime, and you completely control the terms under which it’s used….When you put it on Facebook, you are granting us a license to be able to show it to other people. I mean, that’s necessary in order for the service to operate.” Mr. Zuckerberg said.

Political priorities

The questions from lawmakers also reflected their political priorities. While several Democrats sought to know about Russian use of Facebook in the 2016 presidential election, the freedom of speech concerns had conservative and progressive expressions. While Democrats pointed out to the use of Facebook to spread hate — several of them referred to diatribe against Rohingya — Republicans were concerned about Facebook’s restrictions on conservative groups. Several lawmakers pointed out that Facebook continues to allow racially segregated content. The CEO admitted that there were still lapses in content regulation. Mr. Zuckerberg said the company would have more than 20,000 people working on security and content review soon, “because this is important.” He said artificial intelligence tools will come into play in the coming years and make this process easier and more efficient.

Senator Ted Cruz said many Americans were concerned that “Facebook and other tech companies are engaged in a pervasive pattern of bias and political censorship,” citing examples such as blocking of Catholic pages. Mr. Zuckerberg responded: “…because Facebook (is) …located in Silicon Valley, which is an extremely left-leaning place, and I — this is actually a concern that I have and that I try to root out in the company.”

The CEO of the global company, facing off with American lawmakers, had to sound sufficiently patriotic but also stay clear of the domestic political acrimony. One senator cited a recent report that the U.S Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) was trying to “extract pertinent information regarding targets” from social media. The senator wanted know whether Facebook would cooperate with the “extreme vetting initiative, and help the Trump administration target people for deportation or other ICE enforcement.” Mr. Zuckerberg said the company cooperates with law enforcement only when there is an imminent threat or it is approached through a legal subpoena.

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