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Facebook plays the innocent startup in Senate hearing

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Graph courtesy: Center for Responsive Politics and Center for Public Integrity

The first round of Congressional hearings of the joint Senate Judiciary and the House Energy and Commerce Committee in the Facebook data privacy case was held on Tuesday 13th April. A barrage of questions directed at Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg were faced with customary guile. They were all soft questions that allowed Zuckerberg to explain how FB works. Zuckerberg was profusely apologetic as expected, but did not shy away from giving evasive answers. In fact, he did a fairly professional job of jumping over booby traps, and avoided revealing how Facebook tracks user data from site to site and device to device. He also avoided disclosing how Facebook analyzes the user data that is consolidated by it into commercial information, packaged and provided on the platform and used by thousands of advertisers such as Cambridge Analytica across the world. But these are early days. Analysts state that the US Congressional hearings always begin on a soft note allowing the respondent to give his version of the story without any hard cross-questioning initially.

So Zuckerbeg was allowed to apologize which he did, saying, “I am sorry. I started Facebook, I run it, and I’m responsible for what happens here.” But there were few takers of his apology. Senator Blumenthal made it clear that lawmakers were not interested, saying, “We have seen this apology tour before” and by displaying an oversized poster board showing Zuckerberg and his previous apologies in 2006 and 2011. Even visitors at the hearing were unforgiving with young protestors wearing oversized sunglasses with ‘Stop Spying’ written in pink while others wore #DeleteFacebook T-shirts.

The Center for Public Integrity, which has been tracking the lack of privacy concerns in social media, cynically predicted the outcome of the congressional proceeding even before it started. Alvaro Bedoya, executive director at the center, said, “If we’ve learned anything from Facebook historically, it’s that they are willing to tell one story to the public and do something different behind the scenes.” The Center says ever since 2009 when Google, Facebook and Amazon started spending heavily on congressional lobbying, no law on privacy and security of data has been passed in the United States. The accompanying graph gives interesting data on lobbying with Washington power brokers that results in such cynicism. So consumers have little option today. Either #DeleteFacebook or Forget Privacy.

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