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Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg returns for second day of Congressional hearings

JP Mangalindan
Chief Tech Correspondent

Facebook (FB) CEO and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg returned to Capitol Hill on Wednesday for five more hours of wide-ranging questions, this time from the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committees.

The topics were familiar from Tuesday and revolved around the Cambridge Analytica controversy, whether Facebook users own their data, and whether Facebook mishandled user privacy in general over the years. The jabs were slightly harsher, as some lawmakers underscored and outlined Zuckerberg’s lack of knowledge as it pertained to certain critical issues and missteps.

His prepared remarks were almost identical to his opening statement before the Senate committees and written testimony released Monday: “It’s not enough to just connect people, we have to make sure those connections are positive. It’s not enough to just give people a voice, we have to make sure people aren’t using it to hurt people or spread misinformation. It’s not enough to give people control of their information, we have to make sure developers they’ve given it to are protecting it too. Across the board, we have a responsibility to not just build tools, but to make sure those tools are used for good.”

Zuckerberg began the hearing explaining that Facebook is not a media or financial institution. Congressman Frank Pallone of New Jersey called for Zuckerberg to commit to having Facebook default user settings that would protect users’ privacy. Zuckerberg did not make a clear commitment, but he acknowledged that Facebook needs to clarify how its advertising business works for the public.

“We don’t sell data,” Zuckerberg explained. “That’s not how advertising works. I do think we can do a better job explaining that given the misperceptions out there.”

However, Facebook’s chief executive did acknowledge the social network fumbled when it came to user privacy.

“We were trying to balance data portability in order to have new experiences … but on the other hand, we also need to balance users’ privacy,” Zuckerberg acknowledged. “We didn’t get that balance right out front.”

On the subject of Cambridge Analytica, Zuckerberg conceded for the first time that Aleksandr Kogan, the researcher who sold data to Cambridge Analytica, also sold that same data from up to 87 million Facebook users to “a handful” of other companies. When asked if Zuckerberg could identify which companie, he could not. Zuckerberg also confirmed his Facebook account was one of the 87 million affected by the Cambridge Analytica data leak. He briefly summarized some of the measures Facebook is taking to protect users’ data moving forward, including an audit of “tens of thousands” of developers who had similar access to user data before Facebook restricted access.

“We’ve realized that just taking developers at their word isn’t enough,” Zuckerberg added.

During the hearing, Zuckerberg was asked repeatedly whether Facebook users actually own their online presence. “I believe everyone owns their own content online — the first line of our terms of service says that,” Zuckerberg said. “Giving people control of their information and how they want to set their privacy is fundamental to the whole service.”

But lawmakers were not convinced. In an exchange with Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, a representative for California’s 18th congressional district, Eshoo asked Zuckerberg about potentially altering Facebook’s business model to better protect users. 

“Congresswoman, I’m not sure what that means,” Zuckerberg simply replied.

When asked about Facebook’s role in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Zuckerberg briefly explained some of the measures Facebook is taking to thwart future activity from bad actors, which includes developing tools using artificial intelligence to proactively catch fake accounts that Russia or others “might create to spread misinformation.”

Zuckerberg acknowledged that Facebook will comply with the upcoming General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR, a new European law crafted to protect online users’ privacy that goes into effect on May 25. When pushed, Zuckerberg said the social network would extend the same protections and privacy settings to users in the U.S. but could not specify to what extent. In one measure, Facebook will put a notification on top of its app that walks users through how to adjust their privacy settings, Zuckerberg explained.

Congressman Scott Peters, a Democrat from California, asked whether it would make sense for Congress to define privacy in law. He noted that privacy isn’t a “bottom line issue” for shareholders.

“Privacy doesn’t drive profits, and it may interfere with profits,” Peters stated before asking whether it would help if there were real financial disincentives to violating privacy.

Indeed, accountability was a major theme that permeated Wednesday’s hearing.

“Oftentimes, technology folks spend too much time thinking about what they can do and not what they should do,” said Congressman Bill Johnson from Ohio. 

Congressman Billy Long from Missouri reiterated a sentiment that surfaced on Tuesday about Facebook’s onerous Terms of Service.

“If we invited everyone that has read your terms of service, we could probably fit them at that table,” Long quipped.

Another topic that surfaced time and again: Diamond and Silk, two sisters known for their pro-Trump beliefs who have garnered a large conservative fanbase. Last September, the sisters allege, the social network began to prevent them from notifying followers of new videos and started to limit the spread of their posts. 

“Why is Facebook censoring conservative bloggers such as Diamond and Silk?” Congressman Joe Barton from Texas asked. “That is ludicrous. They hold conservative views. That isn’t ‘unsafe.'”

“In that specific case, our team made an enforcement error and we have already gotten in touch with them to reverse it,” Zuckerberg asserted.

The other major topic on Wednesday? Opioid ads that permeate Facebook, hawking drugs like Percocet.

“Your platform is still being used to circumvent the law, and allow people to buy highly addictive drugs without a prescription,” Congressman David McKinley from West Virginia told Zuckerberg. “With all due respect, Facebook is actually enabling an illegal activity and, in so doing, you are hurting people. Would you agree with that statement?”

“I think that there are a number of areas of content that we need to do a better job policing on our service,” Zuckerberg replied.

As he did on Tuesday, Zuckerberg agreed to cooperate with the government on some type of regulation of not just Facebook but all social media platforms. Acknowledging the challenge of overseeing content on the social network, he continued to explain the company’s use of artificial intelligence and reiterated plans to hire more people to focus on security and reviewing content. Zuckerberg also said Facebook would do a better job of auditing all the third-party apps that the company has deals with.

Investors appeared to be satisfied with Zuckerberg’s second-day performance, Facebook shares edged up 0.78% to $166.31 at market close Wednesday.

JP Mangalindan is the Chief Tech Correspondent for Yahoo Finance covering the intersection of tech and business. Email story tips and musings to jpm@oath.com. Follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

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