Facebook’s commitments to transparency before Congress are welcome, but insufficient

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For some ten hours this past week, most of Washington and Silicon Valley’s attention was focused upon Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony before Congress. We watched at Sunlight as well, given the bearing that the power and influence of the world’s largest social network now has on politics, democracy, governance and our core issues of transparency and accountability.

There’s been no shortage of reporting and analysis of what Members of Congress asked, what Zuckerberg said in response, and what should happen now in Congress and within Facebook.

When my colleague at the Huffington Post, Paul Blumenthal, asked me about my reactions to the testimony, I shared the following statement, which I’ve lightly edited for clarity and published below with expanded points. (It’s worth noting that Paul was one of Sunlight’s first and most prolific staffers, publishing over 1,800 posts over the course of five and half years as a senior writer before he departed in 2011.)

First, while Facebook has endorsed our bill, which you can learn more about at CBS News, Zuckerberg’s claim that they are implementing it is questionable.

The definition of electioneering should be expanded to digital platforms and a level playing field for transparency and accountability should be mandated. Self-regulation is not enough: Facebook could have raised the bar on transparency many years ago, instead of lobbying against legislation or regulation. Senators and Representatives spent little time during the hearing holding Zuckerberg to account for a decade of lobbying.

When asked if he would come back to Washington to advocate for the Honest Ads Act, Zuckerburg demurred and said he’d tell his team to work on it. To be blunt: that’s not what I’m hearing from Congressional staff, with respect to what Facebook staff are telling them about the company’s support or recent opposition to the bill. It’s critical that the press and Senators hold Facebook accountable for the gap that remains between their public statements and private advocacy.

As I told Marketplace, it’s not hard to envisage what full-throated public support looks like, with respect to Facebook encouraging its users to contact Congress and ask them to pass it. That’s not happening yet.

Second, the breadth of questions posed in the hearings showed the many different ways that the rise, power and influence of Facebook implicates different aspects of American society, but the short time that members of Congress had to pose them and the lack of understanding that senators demonstrated did not deliver effective oversight nor, with notable exceptions, significantly improve public understanding.

Lawmakers need to grasp the complex technology and policy issues presented by entities like Facebook to effectively enact the changes in laws and institutions that President Jefferson once said ‘must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind.’

As we pointed out, the public has now been reminded of how well well many U.S. Senators understand Facebook, privacy and technology – or not. If we want better policy and strong oversight, we need to make Congress smarter. Restoring the Office of Technology Assessment could help, but it’s not sufficient.

Abysmal trust in Congress requires the institution to create better hearing process that ensures informed questions – and, critically, followup questions – are posed to industrial and post-industrial titans called to account for how they’re protecting consumers and democracy itself. The apparent lack of coordination or followup between the Senate and House hearings or to the questions of other members failed the public.

Third, Facebook’s relationship with consumers about data access, re-use and “ownership” is complicated, as Alexis Madrigal pointed out: “the raw data that Facebook uses to create user-interest inferences is not available to users. It’s data about them, but it’s not their data.” As I told Politifact, Zuckerberg’s acknowledgment to Congress that Facebook has “shadow profiles” of people who aren’t on the network is significant. Yes, you can download your data — and I have — but there’s a difference between what you are putting into Facebook and what Facebook is collecting or buying from data brokers. You can see what’s on your profile, but you only have access to the content you put on the platform. You can download your photos, but not the record of who reacted to them, our search history, your activity stream or a host of other interactions that Facebook logs across the Internet.

Finally, the problems that exist with Facebook existed before these hearings and will persist now that they are done. Zuckerberg repeatedly said that he’s open to regulation but was rarely held to account on exactly what that should mean, or when, deferring instead to follow up with staff or work with Congress. The devil is always in the details.

Unless Congress takes more time to understand and then to craft careful remedies, the emerging challenges for open government that Facebook is implicated in – from automated activity to algorithmic transparency to public speech on private platforms to data ethics and protections to anti-trust concerns to artificial intelligence – will most likely be obscured by more sound and fury emanating from Washington that ultimately signifies nothing.

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