I’m in the midst of a move, down to the wire and still on the ticking clock so I’m posting a few takeaways (for now) on the two days of hearings in Congress this week on Facebook’s treatment of data and fealty to privacy rules — and its respect for the First Amendment.
If the hearings taught us anything, it’s this: Congress is only discovering that we really don’t know as much as we should about Facebook’s use of data we hand over — either wittingly or without our explicit permission and understanding of how it is monetized.
We may see advertising-related regulations regarding Facebook (and Google and Twitter for that matter) to create more stringent, second-level “opt-ins” after opting in to use the platform to connect and broadcast information.
But it really is up to citizens of all political viewpoints and ideas to keep the pressure on Facebook to live up to its word on platform neutrality — especially conservatives whose voices have been suppressed on the platform.
Axios.com also picked up on privacy literacy ideas floating around since the hearings:
“Members of Congress zeroed in on this idea, grilling Zuckerberg about how hard it is to find, understand and adjust privacy settings on the platform.
“Right now I am not convinced that Facebook’s users have the information that they need to make meaningful choices,” said Sen. John Thune (R-SD).
Events like the Cambridge Analytica scandal have “exposed that consumers may not fully understand or appreciate the extent to which their data is collected, protected, transferred, used and misused,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA).
“You have to inform people in pedestrian language what you have to do with your data,” said Rep. Anne Eshoo (D-CA).”
Back to censorship.
Sen. Cruz (R-Tx) pressured Zuckerberg about the platform’s removal of Catholic pages, conservative pages, and suppression of pages whose politics don’t align with the left-leaning culture at Facebook, such as Diamond and Silk, the popular conservative blogger duo. Facebook recently deemed their content “unsafe.”
But no other Senator followed-up on his questions in any way that would have pressured Zuckerberg to express a full-throated defense of all points of view on the platform.
The “Facebook CEO said at the time that Silicon Valley was ‘an extremely left-leaning place,’ according to Breitbart.com, which is among the conservative outlets whose engagement dropped after Facebook tweaked its news feed algorithm. “[What] I try to root out in the company is making sure we don’t have any bias in the work we do, and I think it is a fair concern that people would wonder about,” Zuckerberg told Cruz. Plenty to follow up with this comment. If only they had.
During the House hearing, Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), questioned Zuckerberg: “Do you subjectively manipulate your algorithms to prioritize or censor speech?”
“Congresswoman, we don’t think what we are doing is censoring speech, I think there are types of content like terrorism which I think we all agree we don’t want to have on our service, so we build a system that can identify those and can remove that content and we’re very proud of that work.”
Blackburn took Zuckerberg to task saying; “let me tell you something right now, Diamond and Silk is not terrorism.”
Zuckerberg would later call the suppression of their page a mistake. But the chilling effect on their speech doesn’t feel like a mistake. It may not feel like suppression to Zuckerberg, but it is suppression of speech. These kinds of tactics used to have civil libertarians in newsrooms and on both sides of the political spectrum up at arms.
After taking in much of the coverage this week, the consensus by all sides of the political spectrum appears to be: The House hearing Wednesday was much more substantive than the Senate hearing in getting into some of the issues about Facebook’s transparency as it monetizes users’ data.
But we’ve only begun to address the issues of censorship and suppression of speech. The question may come down to this: Who’s First Amendment rights are more important?
Zuckerberg may have given lip-service to the idea of providing a neutral platform to all users, but as one outlet pointed out, not one Democratic Senator or House member complained to Zuckerberg about their pages or side of the aisle finding their pages or engagement suppressed.
Whether you read The Daily Kos or The Daily Caller, that should be of concern to anyone who understands and appreciates the uniqueness of the First Amendment in the world. We are the only country that guarantees this right. But as the hearings showed us, it is up to citizens to protect it.