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The Privacy Advisor | Senate wants commitments from Zuckerberg Related reading: Facebook faces mounting scrutiny

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There was a whole lot of hype ahead of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's appearance in front of joint Senate committees on Tuesday. Those who wanted into room 215 at the Hart Senate Office waited in a line that spanned two floors and the stairwell that connected them, many of them never to make it in once the velvet ropes came down. There were just too many bodies. But for all the hype the hearing generated, there wasn't a whole lot to take away from it if you were hoping for legislative solutions or perhaps even just a good old-fashioned takedown of the Facebook's boy-CEO for his shortcomings, dished out by incredulous lawmakers. 

That didn't stop it from reaching the five-hour mark on the stopwatch, though. 

The hearing aimed to address Facebook's ongoing situation, in which it was disclosed 87 million Facebook users' private information was used without their consent by Cambridge Analytica for the purposes of political campaigning for then-candidate, now-President Donald Trump. 

The expectation was that the senators, some of them champions of Internet privacy already, but certainly several of them historically sharp-tongued when necessary, would give Zuckerberg a good lashing. 

But Zuckerberg's opening testimony was diffusive, telling the Senators, "I started Facebook, I run it, and I'm responsible for what happens here. ... It's not enough to just connect people, we have to make sure those connections are positive. ... We have a responsibility to not just build tools but to make sure they work for good." Though he threw out the word "idealistic" a few times and referred to the improbability of foreseeing he'd have this kind of social responsibility when he was making the platform "in his college dorm room," he was less apt to offer an excuse when condemned than to admit the company didn't live up to its responsibilities in the case of Cambridge. 

Hard to argue with that one, sure. Everyone can get on board with an admission of guilt. But Zuckerberg's guilt, according to the number of mentions, seemed to center more about regret over not following through on determining whether the data taken from its system had been fully deleted after the CA data scrape was discovered more than that he constructed the platform that allowed it to happen. Though at one point he did say that the tech worked the way it was supposed to, it was just poorly built tech. 

Specifically, the senators mostly wanted to know how the Cambridge Analytica scandal was allowed to happen, how Facebook will stop it from happening again, and why the company didn't alert its millions of users their information had been breached as a result of the web scraping until 27 months after the fact. 

Specifically, the senators mostly wanted to know how the Cambridge Analytica scandal was allowed to happen, how Facebook will stop it from happening again, and why the company didn't alert its millions of users their information had been breached as a result of the web scraping until 27 months after the fact. 

Zuckerberg reasoned that the company reacted in 2014 when it initially learned Cambridge Analytica had obtained the data — which it bought for $800,000 from a researcher. Facebook "did take action," he insisted. Facebook contacted Cambridge, and Cambridge assured Facebook it had deleted the data. Facebook also demanded both Cambridge and the app developer who'd initially scraped the data "stop using any data they had, and they told us that they did this. In retrospect, it was clearly a mistake to believe them. We should have followed up and done a full audit then," Zuckerberg said.

Instead Cambridge Analytica shared the data with the Russian-based Internet Research Agency, which used the data to fuel its misinformation campaign targeting the 2016 U.S. elections.

As a fix, Zuckerberg's team is now in the process of conducting a full investigation of every app on its site, particularly those that have had access to a significant amount of data in the past. 

"If we find any suspicious activity, we are going to conduct a full audit," he said, adding the solution is "locking down the platform to make sure developers can't get access to this data going forward." 

Further, in the name of transparency, Facebook plans to allow users to click on advertisers to get a full picture of what other kinds of ads they've been running. The CEO indicated he understands that state-backed intrusions into the election system using Facebook as a misinformation-campaign platform are also a problem.

"There are people in Russia whose job it is to try and exploit our systems, and other internet systems as well," he said. "This is an arm's race." 

After investigating, Facebook identified 470 Russian IRA accounts active during the U.S. presidential elections and found 270 Russian sanctioned news agencies' accounts last week, resulting in tens of thousands of fake accounts having been removed total. Facebook made about $100,000 on the ads purchased by the IRA, Zuckerberg said.

But asked whether his company helped the Trump campaign win the election, Zuckerberg said, "We provided support to the Trump campaign like we would any advertiser." 

As an additional fix, Facebook is planning to have 20,000 employees working on content management by the end of the year for the purposes of dealing with fake accounts and other policy violations. 

As an additional fix, Facebook is planning to have 20,000 employees working on content management by the end of the year for the purposes of dealing with fake accounts and other policy violations. Some of the complication of that is some situations "lend themselves more to AI solutions than others," Zuckerberg said, specifically referring to hate speech as an epidemic. 

That's a topic a few of the senators wanted to talk about with urgency. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., raised concerns with how the company will thwart that, citing the recent genocide in Myanmar and reports the company failed to do more to stop the dissemination of hate-mongering campaigns against Muslims there. 

Zuckerberg said that's where fixes get tricky, because hate speech can be so "linguistically nuanced," and difficult to translate, especially if deploying AI solutions to systematically detect and diffuse them. He said the company is in the process of hiring more Burmese speakers. 

While a few lawmakers pressed Zuckerberg for promises that he'd come back to DC soon and lobby hard for federal legislation that would protect online users, especially children, the CEO said he's not a big Washington guy and doesn't come to town often. But he said he isn't opposed to regulation, providing it's the right kind. 

He wouldn't concede the EU had everything right when it codified the General Protection Regulation, but Zuckerberg agreed with Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., that some kind of regulation is a fair idea, with the caveat that there might be areas where various players in the ecosystem should be regulated differently than others. ISPs should be regulated differently than platforms, for example, he argued. 

Zuckerberg wouldn't quite get on board with Markey's CONSENT Act, introduced just before the CEO's testimony that very morning. The bill would require opt-in consent as an American standard before companies could sell or share users' online sensitive data. Zuckerberg allowed that opt-in is generally a good thing, but he wouldn't go so far as to endorse it in all situations: "Senator, I think that that's the right principle." He said the details matter. Further, to Markey's dismay, he would not get on board with Markey's call for a law that would require parental consent to collect data on children 16 and under. 

"We are leaving these children to the most rapacious commercial predators in the country, who will exploit these children unless we absolutely have a law on the books," Markey said. 

"We are leaving these children to the most rapacious commercial predators in the country, who will exploit these children unless we absolutely have a law on the books," Markey said. 

"Senator I look forward to having my team follow up to flesh out the details of it," Zuckerberg said, in a way that sounded like that conversation would never happen. 

Besides Markey's hard press for commitments from Zuckerberg on legislative proposals, and a threat from Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., that if Facebook didn't fix its issues "we are going to have to," no Senator really came down hard. Many struggled with what to ask the CEO, though that's common at a tech hearing.

Perhaps most effective, if anyone, was Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., who noted Zuckerberg's frequent inability to answer questions about some of Facebook's practices, including how many categories of data it stores, how long it takes for a users' account to be deleted permanently, and whether it had ever definitively been breached. 

She also was not satisfied with Zuckerberg's earlier explanation on why the breach was not disclosed in 2014. Someone at some point had to say, "We should tell people," right? 

But Zuckerberg couldn't remember having a conversation in which it was decided not to notify the public of the breach. Not that he could recall.

Throughout, the CEO was keen to make the points repeatedly that Facebook is working to eliminate bad actors, to give users more transparency, and wanted to make it clear that users are in control of their data. 

But Sen. Brian Schatz, R-Fla., disagreed. 

"It doesn't seem to me that we own our own data, otherwise we'd be getting a cut," he told Zuckerberg, who now heads to the House of Representatives for a second day of testimony. Despite facing scrutiny, he's likely not too concerned.

As he said at the hearing Tuesday, Facebook hasn't seen its number of users dip at all since news of the breach broke. 

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