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After the Zuckerberg Congress hearings, what next for Facebook?

© Chip Somodevilla, AFP | Mark Zuckerberg was deemed to have got off lightly in his two days of questioning before Congress.

Text by Sébastian SEIBT

Latest update : 2018-04-13

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s hearings in front of the Senate and then the House of Representatives show that US lawmakers want to limit the Internet titan’s power. But how will they move forward with this?

In ten hours of testimony over two days, April 10 and 11, Zuckerberg was questioned on the Cambridge Analytica scandal, alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election, the proliferation of “fake news” and doubts over Facebook’s political neutrality.

And what happened? “Zuckerberg survives Congress’ softball hearing”, CNN headlined. The hearings “proved once again that Congress doesn’t understand the Internet”, said the online technology magazine Fast Company. In order to navigate the hearing’s not-so-troubled waters, all he had to do was recycle previous excuses and give vague promises to do better.

Nevertheless, a consensus seem to have emerged in both the Senate and the House of Representatives that they should try and constrain the Internet juggernaut’s power – in order to better protect its users’ data. After the hearings, the question is: how do lawmakers intend to achieve this goal?

Self-regulation?

One option is leaving Facebook to put its own house in order. Zuckerberg seems to be in favour of this, having said several times that he is aware that his responsibility goes beyond what the law sets out and that he is ready to “improve” the protection of users’ privacy, without the need for regulatory constraint.

Only a few agree with this approach. Michigan Rep. Fred Upton, a Republican, argued that “a more regulatory environment might ultimately stifle new platforms and innovators [that] some might describe as desperately needed competition”.

But as far as the majority of Senators and Representatives are concerned, the time is up for self-regulation. Illinois Rep. Jan Schakowsky, a Democrat, made this point the most blatantly, by going through 15 years of repeated Facebook apologies for repeated scandals. “This is proof to me that self-regulation simply does not work,” she concluded.

The strong arm of the law?

There are two schools of thought amongst lawmakers in favour of tougher regulation. There are those who advocate an “American-style” approach, with the lightest possible regulation, and those who look to the European example.

Several Senators and members of the House of Representatives have drafted legislation on very specific points – notably on data protection, to make platforms ask for users’ permission before marketing their data. These laws which must be “short, easy to understand and easy to put in place”, according to their authors.

That approach is very different from the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), a comprehensive set of rules aimed at protecting European Internet users’ personal information. One of the provisions of this text, which will come into force in the EU on May 25, is to give users more control over what happens to their data online (to always have access to it, to know who uses it, etc.). Texas Rep. Gene Green, a Democrat, wants Facebook to follow the same rules in the US. In a clever rhetorical move, Zuckerberg pledged to apply everywhere the changes Facebook will make in Europe when the GDPR comes into force – but was careful not to say whether he intended to apply all the rules in the legislation.

Paying to use Facebook?

Over-exploitation of users’ personal data is at the heart of Facebook’s business model, which is based on advertising. One solution would be to get rid of the adverts and have people pay to use Facebook instead.

This has been proposed by Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist and pioneer of virtual reality, who has argued that “we can’t have a system where if people want to communicate, the only way that’s possible is financed by a third party [Facebook, Twitter, etc.] who wants to manipulate them”. He is not the only one considering this possibility: Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s influential number two, has implied that the paid version of the social network could be an option.

Zuckerberg told the Senate that “there will always be a version of Facebook that is free”. This would not prevent him from creating a paid one of some description. But he also stressed that this solution could not be applied everywhere, especially in the world’s poorest countries, where introducing a paid model would, in effect, deprive people of Facebook.

In that case, a solution would be to charge everyone according to their value for advertisers. According to this approach, a so-called “fashion victim” should pay a much higher monthly fee than an Eritrean teenager. But that would require Facebook to put a price on each of its two billion users.

Breaking Facebook up?

This is the last option lawmakers have mentioned: to make Facebook suffer the same fate as Microsoft in the late 1990s. “Are you a monopoly?” was one of the most prominent questions at the Senate hearing.

Zuckerberg said that Facebook is not – but it is a matter for the Bureau of Competition to decide. The goal would be to loosen the Facebook empire’s grip on personal data by forcing it to split from Instagram, WhatsApp or Messenger.

But beyond that shocking question – which brought a smile to Zuckerberg’s face – no American lawmaker raised the possibility of going after Facebook’s domination of social media.

This article was translated from the original in French.

Date created : 2018-04-13

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