The Zuckerberg Hearings Were a Show Trial, And Facebook’s Monopoly Remains Unthreatened

Despite public outrage, Congress is not taking meaningful steps to break the power of Facebook.

Julianne Tveten April 18, 2018

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify before a joint hearing of the US Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill, April 10, 2018 in Washington, DC. (JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

Last week, Face­book CEO Mark Zucker­berg tes­ti­fied before Con­gress to address con­cerns about his company’s col­lec­tion of per­son­al user data. The appear­ance attract­ed a mael­strom of media cov­er­age, as it was the first time the noto­ri­ous­ly press-averse Zucker­berg has appeared in front of Congress.

Facebook is a vehicle of surveillance capitalism and, even under increased scrutiny, will find ways to circumvent the constraints that may be placed upon it to serve its own ends.

Yet, as mem­bers of the pub­lic are increas­ing­ly ques­tion­ing the monop­o­lis­tic pow­er that Face­book has amassed, Con­gress seems con­tent to pre­serve the self-reg­u­la­to­ry ortho­doxy of the tech­nol­o­gy indus­try. As a for-prof­it oper­a­tion that does not charge cash for basic use, the com­pa­ny is fun­da­men­tal­ly pred­i­cat­ed on har­vest­ing user data for adver­tis­ing pur­pos­es. Once the storm has cleared, Face­book will, in all like­li­hood, return to busi­ness as usual.

At the hear­ings, mem­bers of Con­gress claimed to have con­cerns about Facebook’s approach to gen­er­at­ing prof­its. Sil­i­con Val­ley Con­gressper­son Anna Eshoo (D‑Calif.), for exam­ple, asked Zucker­berg if he is will­ing to change his busi­ness mod­el in the inter­est of pro­tect­ing indi­vid­ual pri­va­cy.” In addi­tion, a num­ber of oth­er Demo­c­ra­t­ic sen­a­tors raised ques­tions about the company’s scope and meth­ods of data min­ing. Free-mar­ket cham­pi­on Lind­sey Gra­ham (R‑S.C.), mean­while, broached the sub­ject of reg­u­la­tions for tech­nol­o­gy companies.

How­ev­er, as jour­nal­ist David Dayen cau­tioned in a report on the hear­ings, Con­gress appears unwill­ing to take force­ful action. Sen­a­tor Orrin Hatch (R‑Utah) request­ed Zuckerberg’s assis­tance in draft­ing reg­u­la­tions. Sen­a­tor Bill Nel­son (D‑Fla.) warned, If Face­book can­not fix the pri­va­cy vio­la­tions, we are going to have to.” This remark sug­gest­ings that tech­nol­o­gy com­pa­nies should self-reg­u­late by default, and posi­tion­ings gov­ern­ment as a reac­tive, lais­sez-faire force. Zucker­berg has also man­aged to ingra­ti­ate him­self with some pol­i­cy­mak­ers, earn­ing com­pli­ments on his demeanor from the likes of Sen. Dianne Fein­stein (D‑Calif.) and Shel­don White­house (D‑R.I.).

Face­book, of course, like­ly has no inten­tions of chang­ing its poli­cies, and cer­tain­ly won’t do so in any mean­ing­ful way if it’s expect­ed to gov­ern itself. The plat­form has already had numer­ous oppor­tu­ni­ties to change in response to pub­lic scan­dals. As ProP­ub­li­ca revealed in 2016, Facebook’s ad plat­forms have repeat­ed­ly allowed racial dis­crim­i­na­tion, vio­lat­ing the Fair Hous­ing Act and Fair Employ­ment Act. Now, the com­pa­ny seem­ing­ly encour­ages legal racial­ly tar­get­ed ads through an adver­tis­ing strat­e­gy with the decep­tive­ly benign name looka­like.” Amid height­ened anx­i­eties over dig­i­tal pri­va­cy, Face­book has been lob­by­ing to adjust an Illi­nois piece of leg­is­la­tion to pro­tect its abil­i­ty to har­vest bio­met­ric data with­out user notice or consent.

Con­gress is com­plic­it in this track record. Law­mak­ers have effec­tive­ly ignored Facebook’s years-long his­to­ry of user pri­va­cy inva­sion and data exploita­tion. They’ve allowed Facebook’s afore­men­tioned ille­gal ad plat­forms to dig­i­tal­ly red­line com­mu­ni­ties. (The Con­gres­sion­al Black Cau­cus inter­vened, but its attempts were soft and fruit­less.) They’ve stood pas­sive­ly as Zucker­berg amassed bil­lions of dol­lars, acquir­ing com­peti­tors and build­ing char­ter schools, through the very prac­tices they now condemn.

This anti-reg­u­la­to­ry cli­mate is root­ed in decades of neolib­er­al pol­i­cy, and also — most like­ly — in law­mak­ers’ per­son­al stakes in Facebook’s suc­cess. Face­book has spent near­ly $52 mil­lion on lob­by­ing since 2009. Eshoo was the top recip­i­ent of Face­book con­tri­bu­tions on the House com­merce com­mit­tee. What’s more, White­house owns stock in Face­book, along with Reps. Kurt Schrad­er (D‑Ore.) and Joseph P. Kennedy III (D‑Mass.). Near­ly 30 law­mak­ers in total are esti­mat­ed to have invest­ed in the company.

Facebook’s stake­hold­ers, mean­while, seem to be under the impres­sion that the com­pa­ny is not in per­il: After plum­met­ing in the wake of the Cam­bridge Ana­lyt­i­ca scare, Facebook’s stock began to recov­er at the begin­ning of the month and rose pre­cip­i­tous­ly upon Zuckerberg’s testimony.

That so many con­flicts of inter­est cloud the process of ques­tion­ing Zucker­berg rais­es ques­tions about any solu­tions he might offer. Though he’s been large­ly eva­sive and made no promis­es to Con­gress, Zucker­berg has claimed he’ll glob­al­ly imple­ment the Euro­pean Union’s dig­i­tal-pri­va­cy stan­dards, which are far more strin­gent than those in the Unit­ed States. Nat­u­ral­ly, Zucker­berg has been miser­ly on details, and, under no legal pres­sure so far to enact such changes, has no con­ceiv­able incen­tive to do so.

What’s more, the bill — and the hear­ings — evoke last year’s wave of ten­sion between Face­book and the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment over Russ­ian adver­tise­ments. As a result, Sen­a­tors Mark Warn­er (D‑Va.), Amy Klobuchar (D‑Minn.) and John McCain (R‑Ariz.) pro­posed the Hon­est Ads Act, which would require Face­book to main­tain a pub­lic record of adver­tis­ers that had spent more than $500 dur­ing the pre­vi­ous year. Despite the flur­ry of hand­wring­ing over this issue, the leg­is­la­tion born of it asks vir­tu­al­ly noth­ing of tech com­pa­nies, save some small improve­ments to trans­paren­cy that pose no chal­lenge to its ad-tar­get­ing meth­ods. Telling­ly, Zucker­berg and oth­er tech lead­ers now endorse the bill — an easy act of dam­age con­trol that won’t com­pro­mise their bot­tom lines.

Con­gress may take small steps towards curb­ing Facebook’s monop­o­lis­tic con­trol over user data and media con­sump­tion, start­ing with the CON­SENT Act, which would require Face­book to obtain con­sent from users before using, shar­ing or sell­ing any per­son­al infor­ma­tion — among oth­er man­dates. If Facebook’s abu­sive prac­tices are to be put to an end, how­ev­er, incre­men­tal tweaks won’t suf­fice. Face­book is a vehi­cle of sur­veil­lance cap­i­tal­ism and, even under increased scruti­ny, will find ways to cir­cum­vent the con­straints that may be placed upon it to serve its own ends.

If Face­book is to become a more eth­i­cal oper­a­tion, aggres­sive action in the pub­lic inter­est must be tak­en, from pro­hibit­ing tar­get­ed adver­tis­ing to — more sweep­ing­ly — redefin­ing media like Face­book as a pub­lic good. For far too long, law­mak­ers have shirked these respon­si­bil­i­ties, allow­ing Face­book to pro­ceed with auton­o­my and impuni­ty. At this point, we can’t afford to let them continue.

Julianne Tveten writes about tech­nol­o­gy, labor, and cul­ture, among oth­er top­ics. Her work has appeared in The Nation, Cap­i­tal & Main, KPFK Paci­fi­ca Radio, and elsewhere.
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