The fallout from the story concerning Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, the misuse of personal data and how much Facebook knew about all this, has quickly made its way into the halls of government — and with it Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg is getting a lot of invitations in his inbox.
This afternoon, Antonio Tajani, the president of the European Parliament, publicly issued a call to Zuckerberg to appear before state members to answer questions about personal data on Facebook and the role it plays in swaying elections. “Facebook needs to clarify before the representatives of 500 million Europeans that personal data is not being used to manipulate democracy,” he said.
The invitation follows calls out of the UK and US for appearances from Zuck, too. Earlier today, Damian Collins, a member of parliament who is the chair of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport select committee in the UK, issued a request to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to provide oral evidence to the committee. Meanwhile, Mark Warner, the U.S. Senator who is vice chair of the Intelligence Committee, has also requested that Zuckerberg, along with other tech CEOs, testify in order to answer questions about Facebook’s role in “social manipulation” in the 2016 election.
Meanwhile, Bloomberg is also reporting that the Federal Trade Commission is opening a probe into Facebook and the misuse of personal data, related to a consent decree that was issued in 2011 over the social network’s personal data handling policies.
The FTC said it could not comment on any probe, but it hinted that past precedence, involving Google, indicating that violations of consent decrees are taken seriously and investigated.
“We are aware of the issues that have been raised but cannot comment on whether we are investigating,” it said in a statement a spokesperson provided to TechCrunch. “We take any allegations of violations of our consent decrees very seriously as we did in 2012 in a privacy case involving Google.”
“We remain strongly committed to protecting people’s information. We appreciate the opportunity to answer questions the FTC may have,” Rob Sherman, Deputy Chief Privacy Officer of Facebook, said in response to the report.
The original decree was made as a settlement to an inquiry at the time into how Facebook — then just a startup but growing wildly fast — “deceived consumers by telling them they could keep their information on Facebook private, and then repeatedly allowing it to be shared and made public,” and it arose specifically in relation to how third-party apps were able to use and access this data. This is key because the original survey that users filled out was, in fact, an app of sorts, linking into Facebook by way of its API.
The idea behind the FTC settlement in 2011 was to ensure that Facebook made its privacy and data handling policies clear to consumers going forward, and to get their “express consent” before information is shared beyond the privacy settings those users established.
Specific details of the 2011 decree included barring Facebook from making misrepresentations about privacy and security of personal information; getting user consent before making change that override privacy preferences; preventing material to be shared after an account was deleted or deactivated; and maintaining a privacy program assessing risks and getting this audited every two years.
The decree also notes that it will terminate 20 years from the date of being issued, but that it will renew for another 20 years each time that the FTC files a complaint over any violations — meaning, if the FTC does file a complaint and is successful in determining the violation, it will prolong Facebook’s own need to report and make clear privacy policies to its users.
Policians call on Zuck to answer for the company
The trio of calls from government representatives asking for Zuckerberg to make an appearance himself to discuss the role of Facebook is notable not least because it is coming from so many places at once — a loud chorus that may well finally provide the pressure needed to see the executive come out from behind his status updates.
To be clear, Warner’s public call for Zuckerberg to speak, delivered earlier this morning by way of a Tweet, was not the first time that the Intel Committee has requested Zuckerberg to testify: it had also invited him to the original hearing in November of last year, where lawyers were sent instead.
Meanwhile, Collins’ invitation also comes in the wake of other requests for top Facebook executives, for hearings that the DCMS has held both in London and, just weeks ago, in Washington in an attempt to attract more senior executives to participate.
“The Committtee has repeatedly asked Facebook about how companies acquire and hold on to user data from their site, and in particular about whether data had been taken without their consent,” Collins writes in his letter. “Your officials’ answers have consistently understated this risk, and have been misleading to the Committee. It is now time to hear from a senior Facebook executive with the sufficient authority to give an accurate account of this catastrophic failure of process.”
Facebook has until March 26 to respond to the invitation.
“We have received a letter from the Digital, Culture, Media and Sports Committee and will of course respond by the given deadline,” a spokesperson said. “In the meantime, we continue to engage with the Committee and respond to their requests for information.”
Most damning of all perhaps is the call from the European Parliament president, with its note putting Facebook on the defensive from the word go, but also potentially giving the company an avenue to try to explain itself better than it has.
Indeed, the thinking now seems to be that the increased attention, and the revelations in the media, will now force Facebook’s hand a bit more than before.
The summons to give evidence before the parliamentary committee or Congress are not legally binding, but they are significant for other reasons.
For one, they provide a moment to hear Zuckerberg give live responses to questions as they are presented to him: up to now, a lot of what we’ve heard from the CEO on the subject of Facebook and its position in the wider issue of elections, fake news and the use of social media help achieve certain outcomes, has largely come in the form of long Facebook posts by him, with little in the way of dialogue (which is in itself a little ironic when you consider the whole point of Facebook is supposed to be about engagement).
While there are no direct legal ramifications for testifying, what it does do is provide more evidence for lawmakers. At a time when we have relatively light regulation for social media and how it handles data in the US, this could become a critical moment where we may start to see more calls and efforts to start to regulate this area of digital media more carefully.
A third reason why testifying is notable is because of the optics: for a lot of people who do not understand and care much about the intricacies of how social networks handle their data, this could bring new light to the topic, on both sides of the table. Perhaps especially important for Zuckerberg if he’s truly considering a run for public office sometime in the future, as some have reported.
“We are in the process of conducting a comprehensive internal and external review as we work to determine the accuracy of the claims that the Facebook data in question still exists. That is where our focus lies as we remain committed to vigorously enforcing our policies to protect people’s information,” said Paul Grewal, VP and Deputy General Counsel, in a statement provided to TechCrunch.
Updated with response from the FTC, comments from the European Parliament president, and also Facebook’s comments.