After a first day before congress marked mostly by senatorial grandparents revealing how little they understand about how Facebook functions, on Wednesday the testimony got a lot testier in the House of Representatives.
New Mexico Rep. Ben Ray Luján blasted Facebook for failing to act against third-party privacy abusers using its phone and email lookup feature. “Facebook knew about this in 2013 and 2015, but you didn’t turn the feature off until Wednesday of last week,” he said. “This is essentially a tool for these malicious actors to steal a person’s identity and put the finishing touches on it.”
A well-prepared Luján also confronted Zuckerberg with Facebook’s practice of creating “shadow profiles” of non-users which collected and kept data points without even unread terms-of-service consent. He denied knowledge of the practice, which is either disingenuous or dangerous and reinforces our concerns.
“We continue to have these abuses and these data breaches, but at the same time, it doesn’t seem like future activities are prevented,” groused Colorado Rep. Diana DeGette, while threatening “really robust penalties.”
“To my mind, the only way we will close the trust gap is through legislation that creates and empowers a sufficiently oversight agency with rule-making authority to protect the digital privacy and ensure that companies protect our users data,” added Pennsylvania Rep. Michael Doyle. “Why should we trust you to follow through on these promises when you have demonstrated that you’re willing to flaunt your internal policies and government oversight when the need suits you?”
So how do we fix this? There should be a paid-tier option for people who don’t want advertisers to know what they “like” but the clear and present danger is disinformation, be it fake news spread by Russian troll farms or your angry uncle. When Facebook evolved from a photo and status update-sharing site into a publisher, it put all news posts on the same level. Users not well-schooled in media literacy had a hard time distinguishing a reported New York Times article from an InfoWars conspiracy theory. If reality is largely our perception of it, then the ability to alter that perception also alters our reality. So that ability needs to be reigned in.
It’s too late to #DeleteFacebook because the site is simply too convenient to fail (at least until a better service comes almost, rather than another Ello or Google Plus). But we should learn from Zuck and not take the company’s word for it that they’ll fix it. Self-regulation is not enough for a company as powerful as Facebook — we need to poke back legislatively beginning with the algorithmic news feed and privacy protections. We need to crack down on fake accounts and bots, restrict political ads, restrain data collection, strictly control (if not eliminate) third-party app access, shut down fake-news site pages and, above all, ban those damnable quizzes.
But we’re also not hapless victims here. We willing put those photos up, shared those articles and wrote those comments. That doesn’t mean Facebook is off the hook, but it does mean we’re on the hook, too, and we need to start being smarter about our online lives.