Cutouts of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg are displayed on the South East lawn of the Capitol building ahead of testimony before a joint hearing of the Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees. (Photographer: Al Drago/Bloomberg)

Is This The Beginning Of The End For Facebook?

After two days of congressional hearings that collectively lasted over ten hours, there are many questions about Facebook, its policies and its future that experts are debating.

Do Facebook’s privacy policies confuse more than they inform? Is the platform a near monopoly that may need to be broken? And how do you ensure that the vast wealth of data that Facebook has is not misused, particularly in elections?

BloombergQuint has collected views on some of these issues.

Privacy Policy Or Legalese?

Since the Cambrdge Analytica scandal came to light, Facebook has been receiving a lot of flak for its ambiguous and verbose privacy and data policy. Lawmakers quizzed founder Mark Zuckerberg about how an ordinary user was expected to decipher the terms of the user agreement, something even some of the lawmakers grilling him couldn’t comprehend.

Jitendra Waral of Bloomberg Intelligence says, “It’s so complicated that nobody reads it. Essentially the data sharing beyond the Facebook ecosystem came into question here. Is it just necessary to have data sharing for the service to work? Is it restricted to you sharing your content with your friends  in your network or do the restrictions go beyond that? So basically they have a lot of work to do in terms of transparency, in terms how the data is used and shared.”

During the conversations, it also came to light that Facebook collects data even on those who don’t use the platform.

“In general we collect data on people who are not signed up for Facebook for security purposes," Zuckerberg said Wednesday in a hearing about the social network’s privacy practices in Washington before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

While privacy experts and tech geeks have been crying foul for years about the data collection and storage practices adopted by tech behemoths like Facebook, this revelation by the Facebook founder was the first public acknowledgement of the fact.

Is Facebook A Monopoly?

It’s not just data concerns that were brought up at the hearings.

Sen. Lindsey Graham asked Zuckerberg if Facebook enjoys a monopoly on the type of service it provides to its users. He asked, “If I buy a Ford and it doesn’t work well and I don’t like it, I can buy a Chevy, if I’m upset with Facebook, what’s the equivalent product that I can go sign up for?”

Zuckerberg responded to say that there are other tech companies which operate in the same sphere as Facebook does. He offered statistics of how many Americans use different social apps nowadays, in support of his argument that Facebook does not enjoy a monopoly in the tech world.

Jeff Hauser, executive director of the Revolving Door Project at the non-partisan Center for Economic and Policy Research says, “ Zuckerberg's answer to who his competitor was kind of comically unsatisfying because there is no competition for Facebook and they do have monopoly power in the United States and in many other countries across the world. ”

So one idea is to take Facebook and break it into many other parts that it acquired through previous acquisitions. Instagram would be a powerful competitor to Facebook if it was independent of Facebook. WhatsApp would be a powerful competitor to Facebook if it was an independent competitor to Facebook.
Jeff Hauser, Center for Economic and Policy Research

Time To Regulate The Internet?

Another big moment during the testimony was when Zuckerberg conceded that it was only a matter of time before the internet would be regulated.

He said, “The internet is growing in importance around the world in people’s lives and I think that it is inevitable that there will need to be some regulation.”

Waral agrees that light touch regulation is the way to prevent a Cambridge Analytica like scandal from occurring again in the future. But, he believes that regulation will only raise costs for a company like Facebook. He explains, “What it does is raise compliance costs through out the ecosystem. So, the impact on Facebook from this is that the company is going to increase expenses due to compliance costs.”

The Big Election(s) Year

During his testimony, Zuckerberg did acknowledge that a lot needs to be done to ensure data does not get misused, particularly in elections. Concerns about misuse of user data have emerged in countries like the U.S., but also in India.

Last month, the Union Minister for Law and Information Technology, Ravi Shankar Prasad warned Zuckerberg that if there was any data theft of Indian users due to Facebook’s data collection practices, he would stop at nothing short of summoning the Facebook founder to India.

While Pranesh Prakash, policy director at the Centre For Internet and Society, doesn’t believe the government would actually summon Zuckerberg to India, he says, “One new concern that's valid across the world, where there are limitations put on freedom of expression during times of campaigning and elections, how do they translate online? There is no typical answer to this.”

Most of the speech regulations apply to candidates and apply to  media platforms, which are largely mass media platforms. Now, social media platforms where individuals express themselves might not be regulated the same way or currently at least aren’t regulated the same way.
Pranesh Prakash, Policy Director, Centre For Internet and Society

Pranesh thinks it is time to re-look at the existing election laws which might not prove to be as useful now as they were some time ago.

Is This The Beginning Of The End For Facebook?

Hauser thinks Facebook should help users discern between fakes news and a legitimate source of news.

In the 2016 elections cycle, for fake news, a lot of bots and trolls liked them and they started appearing in the lot of users’ feeds. So the algorithm of Facebook encouraged manipulation. Facebook needs to address these concerns. I don’t think we can trust Facebook if it doesn’t make hard decisions about its algorithms. Right now, Facebook needs to say this is what the algorithm does.
Jeff Hauser, Center for Economic and Policy Research