SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's senators were just two among the dozens that questioned Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg Tuesday in a joint Senate committee hearing. Their respective lines of questioning took markedly different approaches.
The hearing was the first of two scheduled this week before congress following revelations that an app developer, with permission to operate on the Facebook platform, inappropriately resold data gathered on 87 million Facebook users to Cambridge Analytica, which later leveraged the data in outreach conducted on behalf of the campaign of President Donald Trump.
For his part, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, expressed bewilderment that social media users could be functioning without the recognition that their free access to platforms came with some other, less obvious, costs.
"Some have professed themselves shocked … that companies like Facebook and Google share user data with advertisers," Hatch said. "Did any of these individuals ever stop and ask themselves why Facebook and Google don't charge for access? Nothing in life is free, everything involves trade offs. If you want something without having to pay money for it you're going to have to pay for it in some other way, it seems to me.
"These great websites that don't charge for access, they extract value in some other way. And there's nothing wrong with that as long as they're up front about what they're doing."
Hatch went on to ask Zuckerberg what type of legislative changes, aimed at preventing any future versions of the Cambridge Analytica data mishandling, he'd be comfortable with. The Facebook leader seemed open to the possibility of new transparency requirements in his response.
"I think that there are a few categories of legislation that make sense to consider," Zuckerberg said. "Around privacy specifically, there are a few principles that I think it would be useful to discuss and potentially codify into law."
Zuckerberg went on to detail those areas, including regulation of user agreements — which he admitted were hard for most people to understand when "written out in a long legal document" — and giving users more specific control over how their personal data is used.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, took a more aggressive approach with Zuckerberg, seeming to follow the thread, which has been forwarded previously by some pundits, that Facebook actively suppresses conservative political viewpoints and speech on its platform.
When Lee asked if the company was putting its "thumb on the scale" of communication categories outside the hate speech, terrorist organizing, nudity, threats of physical violence and bullying that Facebook regularly seeks out and removes from its site, Zuckeberg replied simply, "Senator, no."
Lee also attempted to press Zuckerberg into revealing two examples of data collection conducted by Facebook that may be "surprising" to people, but the world's fifth-wealthiest person just outlined that the two types of data collected were the content that people posted and their online behaviors, both of which Zuckerberg said was under users' control.
While it's not clear whether additional government regulation is a likely outcome following the Senate's questioning Tuesday, or Wednesday's House hearing, some local industry watchers predicted little is likely to change.
Weber State University professor and data security expert Randy Boyle said he believes Facebook executives will do whatever it takes, in terms of internal policy changes, to stave off further government regulation.
"Zuckerberg and his team will rush to make changes and address the issues," Boyle said. "His appearance before Congress is evidence of that."
Boyle also underscored the adage that, "If you're not paying for a product, then you are the product," and encouraged users to understand what they were dealing with when engaging social media platforms.
"First of all, it may be Facebook that we're talking about now, but the concern applies to almost all free platforms," Boyle said. "These are intelligence gathering companies that are self-branding as social media."
The leaders of two Salt Lake City public relations firms also expected that little substantive change would come from the Cambridge Analytica inquiries, and highlighted that Facebook is a powerful tool for clients looking to sell products, services or themselves.
Tom Love, president of Love Communications, said his agency has seen a slight dip in the volume of people engaging via Facebook. However, he believes the decrease will be temporary, and he has not heard concerns from any of his clients.
"Facebook's impact is staggering," Love said. "Some data suggests it plays a role in half of all purchase decisions. It is, and I expect it will remain, one of the most powerful tools in mediating targeted messaging. There's nothing more efficient for impacting actions and purchases … and there isn't a client in the world who doesn't want to be more effective."
Love also expressed his disbelief that there were still social media users who haven't figured out why the services are offered for free.
"There should be no expectation of privacy by Facebook users or any other social medial user," Love said. "If you don't expect it to be mined or used then you're terribly naive."5 comments on this story
Redirect managing partner James Roberts said he wasn't expecting any big regulatory changes coming out of the Facebook hearings and, like Love, was not hearing any forward concerns coming from clients. He does, however, believe the energy swirling around the Cambridge Analytica inquiry will elevate social media users' awareness of what's going on behind the curtain.
"I think the biggest 'ah-ha' really is that Facebook is a single player in a group of companies that are mining data that no one likes to talk about," Roberts said. "Everybody is out there mining tons of data and, in theory, we would all like to belive that they're behaving well. But, we really don't know if they are."