Following the news that Cambridge Analytica worked with Facebook in order to maximize the effect of their digital marketing campaign during the 2016 election, the #DeleteFacebook movement seemed to be gaining more and more traction by the day. Rival companies like WhatsApp were happy to throw the social media behemoth under the bus, with its co-founder almost immediately recommending everyone abandon the platform. Further revelations in the past couple weeks have only made things worse for the company and, more specifically, its CEO and Founder Mark Zuckerberg.
Yet, for all the Facebook and Zuckerberg hate swirling around in the days preceding his testimony before congress, watching the questioning today I couldn’t help but feel the spotlight be whisked away from Facebook and Zuckerberg, and instead pointed squarely at the terrifying level of technical ignorance among some of the most powerful and influential lawmakers in the United States.
I’m not going to dive into the political song and dance on display, because that’s not really our thing and there’s no fewer than 10,000 other places where you can get the spin from pundits left, right and center on who grilled who, and how it proved X or Y point. Instead I want to focus on the distressing level of ignorance surrounding technology – which is becoming more and more integral to our society with each passing year. The result of this ignorance is an attempt to further restrict and contain services like Facebook, without any real understanding of the real-world impact or efficacy.
For example, at one point Senator Ed Markley asked Mr. Zuckerberg if he would support a law requiring parental permission for a user 16 or younger to share their data with an app. For those who are unfamiliar why certain services like the App Store deny the creation of Apple ID’s or engagement with their services for children under 13, I would draw your attention to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA. The law provides a number of hoops for websites and services directed at children to jump through, including a verifiable method of obtaining parental permission. Subtly veiled behind Mr. Markley’s question was essentially “Do you think COPPA should be expanded to include 13-16 year olds?” Sure, if you want more people lying about their age to bypass arbitrary restrictions.
In 2012 it was discovered that nearly 40% of Facebook users were under 13. This sparked a number of discussions and further surveys that discovered three things:
- Kids lied about their age to access a popular social media network (shocker)
- Kids lied about their age with their parents permission to access a popular social media network
- Parents knowingly lied about their kids age to access a popular social media network
The trend certainly hasn’t slowed, with many parents pleading with companies to provide specific child accounts or requesting that COPPA be reversed altogether. For heaven’s sake, Youtube claims that if you are under 13, you should not be using the service at all.
Other major social media sites and services have similar language. The result? Millions of “invisible” users that aren’t supposed to be on the platforms, but are.
So, if Senator Markley’s idea of fixing this problem is to extend this already ill-executed legislation to an even larger population of the online community, he must be out of his mind.
Then there were the instances when members of the panel were simply ignorant of the privacy settings and services that Facebook already offers. Numerous times, various versions of “Why can’t people limit who they share their information with?” was asked, and all were similarly answered with “They can. It’s in their privacy settings.”
Repeated questions regarding what “encrypted” means, how “the cloud” works, and generally a lot of huffing and puffing concluded with something I would have thought impossible 24 hours ago: Zuckerberg appears to have largely rebuffed the panel and survived his testimony, if for no other reason than the panel didn’t know what questions to ask.
Perhaps even more depressing than the line of questioning is the fact that Twitter appears to be gobbling up the inquisition as a slam dunk. That Zuckerberg has been “grilled” and “destroyed” and chalking up points for their respective Senators, when in fact hardly any of them were able to pin down a damning response. Then again, in a world where scandals are brought to life because someone couldn’t export a file to PDF format, it can’t be too surprising. Still, our lawmakers should be held to a higher standard, and that’s the hope I maintain going forward.
To wrap up, I want to be clear: Zuckerberg messed up. Facebook messed up. There are many reasons why lawmakers and citizens should be rightfully upset and disappointed with the way that their data was mishandled. Unfortunately, today’s testimony did very little to unearth these transgressions. Instead, it just served as a painful reminder that the individuals responsible for crafting legislation and managing the future of internet usage in this country are among some of the least qualified to do so.