Last week, Facebook’s CEO donned a suit instead of a hoodie and made his way to Capitol Hill, where he was questioned by American lawmakers in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
That scandal, the largest the world’s largest social network has ever dealt with, has brought Facebook’s collection and use of data into the spotlight. With negative headlines being published daily and the threat of regulation on the horizon, the company’s public appearance shy chief, Mark Zuckerberg, had little choice but to go before lawmakers and answer questions.
Here’s what we learned from Zuckerberg’s two days of testimony.
Many lawmakers know very little about technology
It was readily apparent that many of the lawmakers questioning Zuckerberg had, at best, a rudimentary understanding of the digital technologies associated with Facebook. Specifically, lawmakers seemed to struggle to get their heads around digital advertising ecosystem and how data is collected and used to target advertisements to consumers through digital channels.
This worked to Zuckerberg’s advantage, particularly on the first day of his testimony. Instead of hitting the Facebook CEO with meaningful if not insightful questions, Zuckerberg was able to spend much of his time educating lawmakers on concepts familiar to professionals as well as tech savvy consumers.
There’s a lot Mark Zuckerberg claims he doesn’t know
While it’s clear that many lawmakers could use a digital crash course, it also became clear that there’s a lot Facebook’s CEO apparently doesn’t know about his own company’s operations. Zuckerberg told lawmakers “I’ll have my team get back to you”, or some variation of that, dozens of times.
The Facebook chief’s apparent lack of knowledge raised lots of eyebrows and some observers suggested his lack of knowledge was feigned ignorance in some instances.
Take, for example, U.S. Senator Roger Wicker’s question, “There have been reports that Facebook can track user’s browsing activity even after the user has logged off the Facebook platform. Can you confirm whether or not this is true?”
The Facebook chief told Wicker that in the interest of accuracy, “it’ll probably be better to have my team follow up with you on this.” Of course, the answer to Wicker’s question was yes. In fact, last year, Facebook managed to successfully defend itself against a lawsuit related to its tracking of users after they had logged out.
Facebook is relying heavily on AI
Investment in AI is booming in lots of industries, including marketing, healthcare and banking. When it comes to many of the challenges Facebook is facing, such as hate speech and extremist content, both of which have been implicated in brand safety scandals, Zuckerberg’s responses revealed that Facebook is betting AI will play a major role in solving them.
In one exchange, Zuckerberg stated “building AI tools is going to be the scalable way to identify and root out most of this harmful content.” But he also later acknowledged that AI introduces a plethora of thorny ethical issues.
He also admitted that AI isn’t perfect, revealing that while Facebook’s current AI tech has been successful in identifying terrorist content, hate speech is much more difficult to identify in part because what constitutes hate speech is often subject to debate. While Zuckerberg is obviously optimistic about his company’s ability to improve his company’s AI tech, the question is what it will do if AI doesn’t prove to be as effective as Zuckerberg expects it to be.
It doesn’t appear that regulation is imminent
Will Facebook face a regulatory crackdown? Reading between the lines last week would suggest that lawmakers are likely to do something. But there were few indications that slapping new regulations on Facebook will be a top priority.
To the contrary, there were many indications that lawmakers would tread carefully and continue their fact-finding efforts. It was also fairly obvious that Facebook will have a warm seat at the table when lawmakers do get down to business drafting legislation, which isn’t surprising given that the company, like most its size, has a small army of lobbyists and has contributed funds to many lawmakers.
But this is just the beginning
While Zuckerberg managed to leave Washington D.C. largely unscathed thanks in large part to technologically challenged lawmakers, Facebook is not out of the woods.
Despite suggestions that Facebook’s biggest crisis will blow over, the sentiment around privacy and user data has changed and with the GDPR coming into effect in the E.U. and U.K. in a little over a month, as this author argued previously, the free-for-all environment that companies have been operating in is going away.
Up next: expect lawmakers to expand their scrutiny to other large tech companies, including Google, which might be sitting on an even larger treasure trove of user data than Facebook. In fact, one lawmaker even asked Mark Zuckerberg if he’d offer suggestions for other individuals they should ask to appear. We’ll see if Zuckerberg’s team gets back to him on that request.