Basu: Missed Notifications

Congress’ failure to ask tough and competent questions is troubling.

by Soham Basu | 4/26/18 2:20am

 Things have gotten bad for Facebook in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, so much so that Mark Zuckerberg voluntarily subjected himself to almost ten hours of questioning from members of Congress. Zuckerberg traded in his iconic t-shirt and jeans for a polished suit and tie during the trip to the Capitol. During two Congressional hearings, there were many revelations for Facebook, the U.S. government and the American people. It felt momentous, that after a virtually regulation-free beginning to the tech industry’s dominance, the sector’s star boy was finally answering to a greater authority. Experienced politicians and trained lawyers, Congressmen and Congresswomen, could finally hold Zuckerberg accountable as the representative of an industry grown arrogant, overconfident and prone to overstepping bounds that no industry had dared cross before.

However, to public dismay, Washington failed. Senators and Representatives were off point and uneducated, asking all the wrong questions. Mark Zuckerberg came to Washington, D.C. on his own, and like every other move he has made in his career, he made the decision to testify calculatedly. Zuckerberg came to Capitol Hill because he knew the federal government had not the slightest idea of the power of Facebook’s empire. It was a publicity stunt, an assuaging of hurt feelings and a recognition of the government — nothing more.

In the history of the United States and the Western world, there has not been a force like the modern technological companies on the West Coast arguably since the Catholic Church. Amazon, Facebook and Google all have one thing that big business of yesteryear never really had or cared for: information. Bankers and oil barons have money, but at the end of the day, that is where their engagement with consumers end. These tech companies have products that are much more integral to the daily life of an average American. Their products — as essential to people’s daily lives as soap and milk — permeate their lives so much that they never really stop using them. These companies know their users’ friends, political leanings, favorite ice cream shop, where they went to school and more. As was evident from the hearings, Facebook even collects data on non-Facebook users. I shocked my friend the other day when I guided him through Facebook’s settings to show him what Facebook thought his political ideology was. He was left baffled when under “ad settings” it read “Political leaning (moderate).” Facebook knew him better than I did — I could have sworn he leaned a little right.

These companies have something much more insidious than money: they have information. It is now apparent how this information can be used for nefarious purposes. It can be used by foreign countries to sway elections, sell alcohol to alcoholics or sell prescription drugs to opioid addicts. Zuckerberg knows this and has known about it. It was only due to bad media and press that he was forced to act. Throughout the hearings, he mentioned that users on average use eight different social media platforms a day, denying that Facebook was a monopoly. But he failed to mention that Facebook owns Instagram and WhatsApp: he came to Washington to solidify this monopoly further. By his own admission, government regulation would hurt startups and potential competitors. It would, however, benefit behemoths like Facebook, the only ones who would be able to comply with any regulations. He was praised for coming; some Representatives even used the opportunity to pitch their districts, like Kevin Cramer (R-ND), who suggested that Zuckerberg should check out Bismarck, North Dakota for Facebook’s next office location. By virtue of coming to Congress, Zuckerberg now holds the mantle for tech companies in leading any regulation that might or might not be mandated. The creator and owner of the biggest social platform of the 21st century is now the guiding light for any regulation on the industry. Is America letting the fox guard the henhouse?

And why was Alexa, Amazon’s digital home assistant, mentioned at a hearing with Mark Zuckerberg? Despite Zuckerberg rehearsing human emotions and gestures, it seems that members of Congress failed to read any memos on Facebook, data privacy or the issue at hand. The generational gap between Zuckerberg and his interviewers was shockingly evident. Some members devoted their time exclusively to diversity and civil rights or the opioid crisis. This is not to say that these issues are not critically important, but this was not the hearing to address them. Very few members approached Zuckerberg with scrutiny, while the majority seemed to approach him with awe and reverence. Only a handful of Democratic and Republican members grilled Zuckerberg on user agreements, data collection, Facebook’s Pixel code that tracks users once they leave Facebook or Russian-backed meddling. Congress had an opportunity to get real answers from the company’s founder but squandered it. Members referenced the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, which goes into effect next month. Instead of promising legislation of its own, Zuckerberg satisfied members with a promise that U.S. citizens would be given the same protections. The E.U. shows that it is not an issue impossible to legislate; citizens and members have chosen to ignore Silicon Valley, with grave consequences. Leadership in Washington must do better than leaving the American people to the whims of these companies as they continue to grow. Congressional staff, committees and members should be better educated , informed and prepared to ask critical questions on a national stage. Generational gaps will always exist, but senators and representatives sworn to serve and protect this country have a duty to understand these complex platforms that are now ubiquitous in daily life.

What is past is prologue. America has seen what happens when it leaves industries unchecked. It is always worthwhile to take a page from history and learn from the events of the past. In pre-colonial South Asia, the rich and powerful Mughal Empire that dominated an entire subcontinent fell not to a government, nation or army, but to a group of merchants known as the East India Company, a private firm that became much larger and more powerful than the British and South Asian governments of its time. After Zuckerberg’s sojourn to the Capitol, Facebook came out not only unscathed, but even stronger, as the new champion of its own regulation and with a stock that grew by 4.5 percent: its biggest gain in two years. Americans must demand better.

Basu is a member of the Class of 2020.

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Correction appended (April 24, 2018): This column has been updated for clarity.