A Precedent for American Tech Entities: Do Facebook Users Have Control Over Their Data?

righPhoto Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. 

On April 10, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified before Commerce Committees and a joint Senate Judiciary regarding Facebook’s handling of user data on Capitol Hill. The hearings aimed to delve into Zuckerberg’s work with the third party group Cambridge Analytica.

Recently, Facebook has come under fire for indirectly supplying Cambridge Analytica (CA), an analytics company that worked on the 2016 Trump Campaign, with information regarding Facebook’s users. Congressmen like Representative Joseph Kennedy, a Democrat, worried the company’s right to the sharing of its users data is so obfuscated that individuals might not have been aware that data, like their political preferences, was being shared until this lawsuit. The data sharing could have additionally contributed to the 2016 election outcomes in the United States, according to videos of Cambridge Analytica executives discussing how the manipulation of the data seized affected Trump’s success.

In 2014, Facebook breached a contract it had made with its users when it allowed researcher Aleksandr Kogan to have 300,000 users, and nearly 90,000,000 of their friends, take a personality quiz by logging into Facebook. Cogen then gathered general profile information from the users and their near 90,000,000 friends regarding pages they liked. He gave the information to Cambridge Analytica who was able to send out Democratic and Republican propaganda to both sides. Specifically, the information was sent to individuals with indecisive or “on the fence” political ideals, feeding these users more right-wing news, pages, and pictures. While the Trump campaign denies this claim, CA executives, in the undercover footage released, deemed this a pivotal tool in the campaign’s victory.

There were several laughs at the hearing as senators prompted questions that appeared to confuse Zuckerberg, along with questions that displayed the age gaps which prevented an understanding of how the website works. Republican Congressman Orrin Hatch, for instance, asked Zuckerberg how the website sustains itself financially while remaining free. “Senator, we run ads,” replied the CEO, eliciting a wave of giggles from the audience. Videos covering the hearing have already poked fun at the fact that Zuckerberg spent a good portion of his time on Capitol Hill explaining how Facebook worked to the congresswomen and men whose job it was to interrogate him.

Navigating an understanding of Facebook, and its self-made privacy laws, proved difficult for lawmakers and for some users as well. Zuckerberg gave an example at the hearing to demonstrate how Facebook handles user data. He said if an individual liked skiing, and had shared that information with friends, but not the public, Facebook could compile the data with other attributes that ski enthusiasts shared, and send it to a private party. Zuckerberg pointed out that while his company allowed private parties to reach people with, for example, “liking” ski posts and advertisements it did not give the parties direct access to the data.

Representative Joseph Kennedy asked Zuckerberg if advertisers specifically had indirect or direct access to data that most people were unaware that they were generating. He expressed that while there is an option to shut off third party data usage, the bigger problem regarding trust with the website is that individuals may not be aware of the type of information they are putting onto the website. He later rephrased his question to ask the Facebook CEO if the metadata collected from users is accessible to third parties to better target advertisements. Zuckerberg responded by explaining that Facebook did use the metadata to make the system more relevant to the user. “I don’t understand how users then own that data,” Representative Joseph Kennedy said before being cut off in the interest of time.

The Zuckerberg congressional hearing highlighted the era in which policymakers will decide how much regulation technological entities receive. Zuckerberg himself expressed his openness to regulating the site. He promised to have his team draft suggestions during the hearing.

Additionally, this congressional hearing set a precedent for tech companies in how America’s privacy regulations translate into democracy. Whether Facebook will continue to have the unregulated ability to handle user data, or if users will eventually pay to sustain an ad-free Congress-regulated version of the website, will be in the hands of the United States Congress and Zuckerberg himself.

If Facebook were to allow more third parties to use people’s data in regulating itself, people fear those with less access to other news platforms would not be able to deter fake from real news. Individuals who do not look to any news source besides their Facebook or Twitter accounts could be in danger of viewing the world in a premeditated biased lense.

Republican Congressman Ted Cruz insinuated that Facebook has biased politics when he asked Zuckerberg why right-wing news sources had been banned while Planned Parenthood and other progressive organizations had been kept on the website. If policy makers like Cruz are correct to infer that Facebook filters news to fit one group’s ideologies and views, people who use Facebook under the assumption that it is a neutral platform might regard Facebook as a credible source for information. This can have macro consequences when an election’s outcome is shaped by news sources one is exposed to, or confined by. One’s Facebook page can be mistaken as an unbiased view of the world.

In the book, “Changing Minds or Changing Channels,” Kevin Arceneaux and Martin Johnson find evidence to suggest that the “direct” effects of partisan media fall most on those who chose to watch partisan channels and podcasts. When Cambridge Analytica provided rightist videos and news sources to right swinging or ambivalent voters, audiences were flooded with partisan posts and media through Facebook and other media sites the minute they logged into their favorite platforms. Perhaps the website’s debated influence in the 2018 presidential elections makes understanding Facebook’s abilities significantly salient. Is logging into a social media page the same as agreeing to be influenced by biased political messages?

Zuckerberg is expecting to reappear in court May 26 for the second round of questioning and investigation.

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