Tables turned in Facebook grilling

Editorial | Mary Ma 13 Apr 2018

Most of us use Facebook, but how much do we understand about how the social media platform operates?

The gap of knowledge couldn't have been better exemplified by the public hearing staged on Capitol Hill this week, with Facebook founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg being grilled in the hot seat. He was surrounded by congressmen - some as old as his grandparents.

The senators and representatives were there to interrogate him over the technology giant's data breach that affected tens of millions of Facebook users, in what's notoriously known as the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

It must be the most watched hearing in recent memory. Prior to that, Facebook had been under pressure in the stock market due to fears the congressional hearing would clear the way to tighter regulations for the social media platform.

As the second and last session concluded, Facebook's share price shot past US$166 (HK$1,295), up 5 percent from what it was at the beginning of the first hearing session.

It might be scored as a victory for Zuckerberg, who attended the hearing fully prepared for even tougher questions. However, it would be more accurate to call it a bitter failure for the congressmen who, while being masters of the old economy, were plain novices in the new economic trend.

It was a long shot to rely on such long-in-the-tooth, out-of-touch politicians for a regulatory regime fit for the digital age.

That's ludicrous because personal data is used all the time, from the moment we shop online, register to create new accounts, or buy new smartphones. The 12 hours of hearing exposed a huge gap in the understanding.

Some did ask the right questions about the Cambridge Analytica breach, and whether Facebook had become too large, or how its platform could be regulated. But then they were unable to pursue the issues further due to a lack of relevant knowledge.

Perhaps the most representative of such ignorance was Orrin Hatch, the Republican senator for Utah. Jaws fell to the floor when the 84-year-old Hatch asked Zuckerberg how Facebook sustained a business model in which users didn't pay for the service.

Zuckerberg answered: "Senator, we run ads." And Hatch responded: "I see. That's great."

Whoa, what a "great" question and answer!

Ironically, some congressmen also used the opportunity to invite Zuckerberg to help improve local fiber optic networks. Shelley Capito, the Republican senator for West Virginia, asked if Facebook could bring some fiber cable along the next time its founder visits her district.

Zuckerberg, the 33-year-old Harvard-student-turned-billionaire didn't disappoint his fans, turning the table to his side to promote his company's free basic internet initiative scheme.

Several representatives in the House followed suit, making similar requests on the second day of hearing.

The immediate crisis for Facebook is probably over, but it doesn't necessarily mean smooth sailing for the company.

Unless Zuckerberg protects the personal information of his clients effectively, the exodus of users triggered by the Cambridge Analytica scandal will continue.

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