Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress on Tuesday and Wednesday. I have mixed feelings about Congress addressing how data from Facebook is used, as well as, the alleged political bias they appear to have when it comes to censorship.
First, I want to unequivocally state that Facebook is a private company so they absolutely have the right to implement policies that restrict speech. That is not in question. I do not support Congress regulating private companies this way.
Second, in terms of the data mining that goes on with Facebook, nobody forces anyone to use the service. Nobody forces anyone to share a bunch of personal information. The things I share on Facebook I am comfortable having on Facebook. I have a public Facebook page so I limit what personal information I share. Facebook should strive for greater transparency, but the fact is they are a private company that allows us to use their platform for free. How did we think they made their money? It’s good that we are having the discussion and I hope that Facebook would address some problems, but, again, is this something I want Congress regulating?
No. In fact, I find it ironic Congress is up in arms about this considering all of the data mining the federal government does – all of the time.
What I do appreciate about this hearing with Zuckerberg is that it provides information. It also applies pressure on Facebook to do the right thing in the court of public opinion.
In terms of using Facebook (and other social media outlets) as a platform for speech. I do hope Facebook addresses the alleged bias. I truly hope Facebook being “a platform for all ideas” is not just a catchphrase. It is important that as a free society we have a platform for expressing our ideas to all people, not just people who agree with us.
To that end, if Zuckerberg’s time before Congress helps to preserve that, then great.
I wanted to highlight two exchanges from testimony on Tuesday, the first is between U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Zuckerberg, as well as, an exchange between U.S. Senator Ben Sasse (R-NE) and Zuckerberg.
Cruz used his time questioning Zuckerberg about alleged political bias. First, watching this clip I can say without a shadow of a doubt that I would hate to be deposed by Cruz and you can see his courtroom experience at work. Secondly, I think he shined some light into how Facebook has not been evenhanded in addressing speech they consider to be “offensive.”
“Mr. Zuckerberg, does Facebook consider itself to be a neutral public forum?” Cruz asked.
“Senator, we consider ourselves to be a platform for all ideas,” Zuckerberg replied.
“Let me ask the question again, does Facebook consider itself to be a neutral public forum? And representatives of your company have given conflicting answers on that,” Cruz countered. “Are you a First Amendment speaker expressing your views or are you a neutral public forum allowing everyone to speak?”
“Senator, here is how we think about this. I don’t believe that… there is certain content that we clearly do not allow: hate speech, terrorist content, nudity, anything that makes people feel unsafe in the community. From that perspective, that is why we generally try to refer to what we do as a platform for all ideas,” Zuckerberg responded.
“Let me try this because of the time constraint, it is just a simple question. The predicate for section 230 immunity under the CDA is that you are a neutral public forum. Do you consider yourself a neutral public forum or are you engaged in political speech? Which is your right under the First Amendment,” Cruz asked.
“Well Senator, the goal is certainly not to engage in political speech. I’m not that familiar with the specific legal language of the law that you speak to. I would need to follow-up with you on that. I am just trying to lay out how broadly I think about this,” Zuckerberg answered.
“Mr. Zuckerberg there are many Americans who I think are deeply concerned that Facebook and other tech companies are engaged in a pervasive pattern of bias and political censorship. There have been numerous instances with Facebook. In May of 2016, Gizmodo reported that Facebook had purposely and routinely suppressed conservative stories from trending news including stories about CPAC, including stories about Mitt Romney, including stories about the Lois Lerner IRS scandal, including stories about Glenn Beck,” Cruz said.
“In addition to that, Facebook initially shut down the Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day page, has blocked a post of a Fox News reporter, has blocked over 2000 Catholic pages, and most recently blocked Trump supporters Diamond and Silk’s page with 1.2 million Facebook followers after determining their brand and content are unsafe to the community. To a great many Americans that seems to be a pervasive pattern of political bias, do you agree with that assessment?” Cruz asked.
“Senator, let me say a few things about this. First, I understand where that concern is coming from because Facebook and the tech industry are located in Silicon Valley which is an extremely left-leaning place. This is actually a concern that I have and that I have tried to root out in the company is making sure that we don’t have any bias in the work that we do and it is a fair concern that people would wonder about,” Zuckerberg answered.
Cruz then asked if Zuckerberg was aware of any page or ad that was taken down that belonged to Planned Parenthood, MoveOn.org, or any Democratic candidate. Zuckerberg said that he was not aware of any specific page or ad.
Cruz also asked about the political orientation of the 15,000 to 20,000 people Facebook employs to do security and content reviews. Zuckerberg said that he didn’t inquire that of people who join the company.
“So as CEO, have you ever made hiring or firing decisions based on political positions or what candidates they supported?” Cruz asked.
“No,” Zuckerberg replied.
“Why was Palmer Luckey fired?” Cruz asked.
“That is a specific personell matter that seems like it would be inappropriate to speak to here,” Zuckerberg said.
“You just made a specific representation that you didn’t make decisions based on political views,” Cruz countered.
“I can commit that it was not because of a political view,” Zuckerberg stated.
Cruz also asked whether the 15-20,000 content reviewers ever donated to Republican candidates which Zuckerberg replied he did not know.
“In your testimony you said, ‘It is not enough that we just connect people. We have to make sure those connections are positive, as we have to make sure that people aren’t using their voice to hurt people or spread misinformation. We have a responsibility not just to build tools, but to make sure those tools are used for good.’ Mr. Zuckerberg, do you think it is your responsibility to assess users whether they are good and positive connections or ones those 15 to 20,000 people deem unacceptable or deplorable?” Cruz asked.
“Senator, are you asking about me personally?” Zuckerberg asked. Cruz said he meant Facebook.
“Senator, I think there are a number of things that we would all agree are clearly bad: foreign interference in our elections, terrorism, self-harm, those are things…,” Zuckerberg responded.
“What about censorship?” Cruz asked.
“Well, I think that you would probably agree that we should remove terrorist propaganda from the service. That, I agree that is clearly bad activity that we want to get down. We are generally proud at how well we do with that. Now what I can say, and I do want to get this out before the end here is that I am very committed to make Facebook is a platform for all ideas. That is a very important founding principle of what we do. We are proud of the discourse and the different ideas that people can share on the service. And that is something that, as long as I am running the company, I am going to be committed to making sure that is the case,” Zuckerberg concluded.
In his time with Zuckerberg, Sasse was not as assertive as Cruz was, but he brought up the question, “can you define hate speech?”
Zuckerberg first mentioned violence.
“Let’s agree on that. If somebody’s calling for violence, that shouldn’t be there. I’m worried about the psychological categories around speech. You used language of safety and protection earlier, we see this happen on college campuses all across the country. It’s dangerous. Forty percent of Americans under the age of 35 tell pollsters they think the First Amendment is dangerous because you might use your freedom to say something that hurts somebody else’s feelings,” Sasse said.
“Guess what? There are some really passionately held views about the abortion issue held by people on this panel today. Can you imagine a world where you might decide that pro-lifers are prohibited about speaking about their abortion views on your platform?” Sasse asked.
“I certainly would not want that to be the case,” Zuckerberg responded.
“But it might really be unsettling to people who have had an abortion to have a debate about that wouldn’t it?” Sasse countered.
“It might be, but that would not fit any of the definitions of what we have, but I do generally agree with the point that you are making which is as we are able to technologically shift, especially toward having AI proactively look at content, that is going to create massive questions for society about what obligations we want to require companies to fulfill. And I do think that is a question that we need to struggle with as a country because I know other countries are and they are putting laws in place and American needs to figure out and create the set of principles under which we want American companies to operate,” Zuckerberg replied.
“Thanks. I wouldn’t want you to leave here today and think that there is a unified view in Congress that you should be moving toward policing more and more and more speech. I think violence has no place on your platform. Sex traffickers and human traffickers have no place on your platform, but vigorous debates? Adults need to engage in vigorous debates,” Sasse said.