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Facebook’s U.S. Congress hearing: What happened, and what does it mean?

Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg poses a question during the CEO Summit. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza) CC BY 3.0

Written by

Kristi McKee

Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg poses a question during the CEO Summit. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza) CC BY 3.0

On April 10 and 11, Mark Zuckerberg testified in front of Congress in response to the ongoing review of Facebook’s data collection and distribution practices.

How did Facebook get to this point? There are a lot of factors, but at the root of this week’s hearing are the revelations that Aleksandr Kogan, a developer and researcher at Cambridge University, built a quiz app that collected datasets from 87 million Facebook users in 2014, which he then sold to Cambridge Analytica, a voter-profiling firm, allowing them to use the personal details of these 87 million users. He later claimed (but now denies) that they used the data to craft political ads for President Trump’s 2016 election. Kogan denies wrongdoing and is claiming he is being used as a scapegoat by Facebook.

So what happened this week? During nearly 10 hours of questioning over two days, almost 100 lawmakers took the opportunity to address Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg as he fielded inquiries into Facebook’s data collection practices, the company’s alleged monopoly, and his views on regulation.

This complex conversation is moving at a breakneck pace and it’s challenging to capture everything in one, swift message right now. Governments, users, businesses, and marketers (NATIONAL included) are carefully watching the evolution of this issue under a magnifying glass, looking for signs of change—from how data is collected, to how we are able to leverage datasets to create a personalized experience for consumers, to how social platforms will (or won’t) be regulated in the future.

A lot was covered over the course of the 10 hours—let’s break down the key highlights from the two-day hearing:

1. Data collection is on everyone’s minds At the heart of this conversation is the transparency of data collection. And it’s likely to be a continuous issue in the coming weeks and months. User trust in Facebook is already strained and we can expect to see Facebook heavily pressured to give users more explicit control over their data. This will absolutely impact marketers’ ability to rely on data scraped from social platforms like Facebook to build audiences, and marketers will be carefully monitoring third-party products and how they are reacting to this new challenge. Data-driven marketing and public relations are reliant on access to user data—what this shift toward privacy will mean is yet to be determined.

What type of data is collected? Zuckerberg broke it out into two categories: The vast majority is content people choose to share on the service itself—your posts and what you think of as the Facebook service. The second category is around specific data that Facebook collects in order to make the advertising experience better for users. It helps make the experience more relevant and better for people getting relevant content, and helps advertisers reach the right audiences. As marketers, we know the latter to be true. It also helps brands’—and Facebook’s—bottom line.

So how can users control their data? Zuckerberg was correct in stating, again and again, that users can, on the surface, access and control the apps their data is shared with, learn which categories of data are available to download, and adjust their ad preferences.

The plot thickens when we ask whether users are tracked outside of the Facebook platform, whether a person needs to have a Facebook account to have their online activity tracked, and how the data is stored. We expect the term ‘shadow profile’ to become a buzzword in the coming weeks and months—the hearing only scratched the surface. Zuckerberg side-stepped these topics or deferred to his team for follow-up—but he’s not off the hook. The discussion around data transparency and accessibility to information around how users’ data is being captured, stored, and shared isn’t going away anytime soon.

2. The Cambridge Analytica investigation is just beginning Two key questions were at the center of the Cambridge Analytica discourse: a) how did this happen, and b) how will Facebook prevent it in the future. Zuckerberg emphasized Kogan’s breach of Facebook’s terms of service by selling the data (though Kogan denies this allegation). He also claimed Facebook only just learned of the ‘whole program going on with’ Cambridge University, i.e. their full research team, and didn’t rule out the possibility of suing Cambridge University or Cambridge Analytica for the misuse of data.

The Cambridge Analytica investigation is ongoing and we’ll likely learn more in the coming months. Facebook claims it has begun to inform the 87 million users whose data was misused by Cambridge Analytica and has created a tool for users to check if their data was misused.

Anticipate more conversation around this, but we should differentiate between the Cambridge Analytica conversation and the broader discussion around use of user data. There is a lot of misinformation around how marketing firms use data, what data is actually available to third parties, and how granular the data is.

3. Users need to be aware of what they’re signing up for The length of Facebook’s Terms of Service, and its inaccessibility for the average user to consume and understand, was a recurring pain point raised throughout both days. There were numerous calls for Facebook to make its Terms of Service more user-friendly with plain language.

This raises an interesting question—terms of service agreements are designed to be fully encompassing of all legal considerations to ensure users are entering into a contract with the other party aware of the implications of that relationship. At a certain level, the onus is on the user to read the terms of service.

But the reality is that Facebook, as they state, was developed to connect users globally. With over two billion users worldwide, the platform hosts users of different backgrounds, education levels, and digital experience. U.S. senators argued over and over that users need an accessible, easy-to-digest way to understand the implications of their agreement to use Facebook-owned platforms.

4. Political advertising on the platform is being reformed Starting next week, users are going to be able to see what ads politically-affiliated pages have in-market on the platform. Political ads that are running will be directly tied to the page that’s running them. Those who manage large Pages that do not clear the process will no longer be able to post. This is designed to make it much harder for people to administer a Page using a fake account, which Zuckerberg noted is strictly against Facebook’s policies.

When asked about Russia’s use of Facebook to interfere with American politics, specifically the 2016 election, Zuckerberg expressed regret that Russian agencies were able to leverage the platform for their political agenda, and indicated a solution is one of his top priorities in 2018. As he noted, though, there are people in Russia whose sole jobs are to exploit the U.S. systems, so a solution is an arm’s race. A commitment was made to be better at eliminating threats to the U.S. and global, political systems.

It’s important to note that the term ‘political’ is being used more broadly than ‘politician’ and ‘party pages’—Zuckerberg noted that organizations engaged with advocacy campaigns (e.g. The Sierra Club) also fall under ‘political’ categorizations—this could have a larger impact on advocacy campaigns.

He demonstrated a visible passion for the topic of Facebook and politics—pointing to multiple 2018 global elections in which Facebook is actively working to ensure it is positively supporting and not influencing. Expect this topic to come up more as 2018 elections take place across the world.

5. Regulation is on the table More prominent during day two’s questioning, regulation is very much a possibility. It’s already a reality for any company doing business with the EU: the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) goes into effect May 25, and will affect all companies processing and holding the personal data of data subjects residing in the EU, regardless of the company’s location.

Throughout the hearing, senators and representatives advocated for the introduction of regulation. In his opening remarks on Wednesday, Frank Pallone, the ranking member of the house committee on energy and commerce, called for comprehensive privacy and data protection legislation. This was echoed by lawmakers over the course of the two days.

When probed, Zuckerberg agreed that regulation can be beneficial. His caveat was that it must be the ‘right’ regulation. He didn’t dig into what that means, likely to avoid spooking shareholders. Giving users ‘increased controls’ was a commitment Zuckerberg seemed willing to make, but protections or regulations were conversations saved for another day.

6. There are questions Zuckerberg can’t—or won’t—answer The following questions were flagged by U.S. lawmakers as topics Zuckerberg sidestepped or flagged for follow-up (we’ll be monitoring the outcome closely):

  • Whether Facebook is tracking users across platforms and devices outside of Facebook.
  • How much data Facebook is tracking across platforms and devices outside of Facebook (and within the platform).
  • Who is Facebook’s biggest competition?
  • Whether Facebook knew that Cambridge Analytica was breaching the terms of service.
  • That Cambridge Analytica had leveraged data from 87 million users, how far back Facebook knew, and why the decision was made not to notify the users.

Will Facebook come out of this scandal? Time will tell. Facebook’s shares actually rose after the Senate hearing. But for a platform built on human engagement, whether users accept the status quo, embrace change, or abandon the platform altogether is yet to be seen. And then there’s the issue of federal regulation, similar to the impending EU GDPR, and the platform’s ability to adjust its business model to be sustainable under new regulations.

This is a tangled, fascinating conversation, and one that is only just beginning. There will be impacts on the marketing industry, no doubt. Those impacts are already being felt, impacting third-party scraping platforms and impacting marketers’ abilities to pull large datasets.

Is this a shorter-term issue or a longer-term evolution of data collection? We’ll be watching carefully to see how this issue evolves over time.

——— Written by Kristi McKee, former Senior Consultant, Integrated Strategy, NATIONAL Public Relations