Breaking down the Zuckerberg hearings

Racepoint Global

Written by: Elizabeth Wells – Account Supervisor, Racepoint Global D.C.

This week’s hearings made two things clear: first, members of Congress are largely unfamiliar with some of the most important aspects of how Facebook and other technology companies collect and use data. Second, this unfamiliarity may not prevent them from crafting legislation to regulate these companies anyway.

Throughout the hearings, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and members of Congress often appeared to be speaking different languages, with legislators’ lack of tech savviness on full display. For the purposes of calming Facebook investors and preventing further reputational damage to the company, Zuckerberg leveraged this knowledge gap to deflect follow-up questions and dodge tough issues. Though this strategy may have worked to evade any serious blows in the hearings themselves, Facebook and other tech industry giants need to clearly communicate their proposed solutions to both members of Congress and social media users. If they fail to offer a viable fix—or fail to make it appealing to users and regulators —they could be faced with an unworkable regulatory regime governing privacy, data collection, content policies, and other issues.

One of Facebook’s key arguments is that the action steps the company is taking are significant enough to protect user privacy. Specifically, Zuckerberg repeatedly insisted that privacy controls available to users give them “ownership” over their data, and allow users to determine what data is shared. Though few members of Congress posed follow-up questions on these topics, tech media clearly picked up on the distinction Zuckerberg avoided – between data that users share, and data that Facebook acquires through its monitoring tools.

Some members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee raised specific concerns about Facebook’s use of tracking tools on external websites and questioned about Facebook’s ability to be objective in its enforcement of community standards. Zuckerberg cited Facebook’s efforts to develop AI tools to recognize and remove prohibited content and deflected questions about tracking practices. While he may have assuaged lawmakers’ concerns in the moment, media and experts will continue to point out these unresolved issues.

Compounding the industry’s challenges, Zuckerberg’s ten-hour testimony raised a number of additional questions in lawmakers’ minds. Should companies be liable for user-generated content? What standards should companies use if they decide to review and remove certain content? What recourse should users have? Should the government play a role in these decisions? If AI tools are used, how will companies review their effectiveness and will there be any transparency for users?

The industry must now prepare to provide substantive answers to these questions. It is unlikely that the sidestepping we watched this week will be acceptable after legislators debrief with their staffers and prepare for future hearings. To manage impending inquiries, companies must communicate the steps they are taking, both directly and through the media, with lawmakers and social media users. Establishing a clear narrative around solutions will position the industry as a partner, and as we watched in the hearings, members of Congress are willing—and even eager—to have Facebook and other companies take an active role in crafting and advocating for policy changes.

After two marathon hearings on Capitol Hill, the question for social media companies and their users is no longer whether Congress will pursue legislation to regulate Silicon Valley, but when and how. So far, the industry has largely escaped regulation, leaning on their popularity with the public. Now some of these companies have become so ubiquitous and powerful that it’s hard to comprehend how they avoided the microscope of Congress for so long. Facebook and its Silicon Valley brethren should be actively communicating to legislators, the public, and the media their preferred legislative solutions—or at least ones they can live with. If they leave it to lawmakers, the results could be unworkable, or worse.