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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg Began Testimony Before Senate Committee with an Apology for Company’s History

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WASHINGTON, April 10, 2018 – After months of seemingly-unending scandal over his company’s role in the 2018 election, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg began his first of two days of testimony on Capitol Hill Tuesday by making it clear he was well aware of the laundry list of problems with the company he created 14 years ago in his Harvard dorm room.

“It’s clear now that we didn’t do enough to prevent these tools from being used for harm as well,” Zuckerberg said while speaking at a rare joint hearing of the Senate Commerce and Judiciary committees. “And that goes for fake news, foreign interference in elections and hate speech, as well as developers and data privacy.”

The 33-year-old CEO, who swapped his trademark hoodie and dark t-shirt for a suit and tie during his first appearance on Capitol Hill – a venue he’d managed to avoid during years of smaller controversies over the company he founded – continued with something else not usually associated with him or Facebook: an apology.

“We didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibility, and that was a big mistake. And it was my mistake, and I’m sorry. I started Facebook, I run it, and I’m responsible for what happens here.”

Facebook officials spoke with office of Special Counsel Robert Mueller

He also made some news as he confirmed once again that Facebook employees have spoken with  investigators working for Special Counsel Robert Mueller, whose office has been charged with looking into Russia’s efforts during the 2016 campaign and determining whether or not that interferences was aided by Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.

I know we’re working with them,” Zuckerberg said while declining to go into detail, citing confidentiality rules surrounding the investigation. He said that he had not been interviewed by Mueller or his team, however.

Over the course of more than four hours, Zuckerberg disappointed anyone hoping for a crack-up or a break in his composure as he fielded questions from 42 senators, invoking his company’s only-in-America origins to defend its frequently tone-deaf actions on privacy and its history-making failure in spotting and stopping efforts by Russia – and perhaps the Trump campaign — to manipulate American voters during the last presidential election.

While Zuckerberg told senators his company offered the Trump campaign the same assistance it would offer any customer, called the failure to stop Russia one of his “biggest regrets,” noting that getting the 2018 election right is one of his “top priorities” for this year.

While shareholders lauded Zuckerberg’s performance by driving Facebook’s stock price up by close of business Tuesday, many senators were not impressed.

Facebook’s history is dotted with apology after apology

Commerce committee chairman John Thune, R-S.D., noted Facebook’s history is dotted with apology after apology for what he euphemistically called “ill-advised decisions” on privacy matters.

“How is today’s apology different?” Thune asked.

Florida Senator Bill Nelson – the highest ranking Democrat on the Commerce Committee — promised action if Zuckerberg and his company fail to adequately tackle the problems posed by Facebook.

“If Facebook and other online companies will not or cannot fix these privacy invasions, then we will,” Nelson said.

Promoting new approaches to regulation on social media

Several Democrats took the opportunity to plug bills they’ve sponsored to impose some regulation on Facebook and other social media companies that make heavy use of user data, and while Republicans have yet to sponsor any, several said that could change.

Senator Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., wanted to know if Zuckerberg would be willing to work with lawmakers in order to look at what “regulations you think are necessary in your industry.”

“Absolutely,” Zuckerberg said.

He later told Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, that he is “not the type of person who thinks that all regulation is bad.”

For the most part Zuckerberg’s response in the face of questioning was contrite, as he acknowledged that he and his colleagues “have made a lot of mistakes,” while promising to work harder in the future.

Sen. Ted Cruz tackles Zuckerberg over ‘political censorship’ at Facebook

Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas, used his time for questions to grill Zuckerberg over about “political censorship” at Facebook.

Cruz cited an incident documented by GotNews.com, a conspiracy-focused site which claimed Facebook employees kept “conservative stories” out of Facebook’s trending topics list. The site suggested Facebook had blocked content from Diamond and Silk, a pair of African-American pro-Trump commentators who often appear on Fox News, and that Facebook fired Oculus founder Palmer Luckey because of their political beliefs.

In 2014 Facebook purchased Oculus VR, a virtual reality company.

Responding to Cruz’s question about Luckey – who gained some fame in conservative circles for purchasing a billboard suggesting Hillary Clinton be jailed – Zuckerberg denied bias had anything to do with his departure from the company and said the reason was not one that could be discussed in an open setting.

Other senators, however, appeared uncomfortable discussing technology-related topics, and were clearly reading questions that had been given to them by staff. Senators asked few follow-ups and Zuckerberg was able to deflect aggressive questioning by promising senators his lobbying team – which came with him in force by filling the rows of seats behind him – would get back to them.

No consensus yet on the need to regulate Facebook

Response to Zuckerberg’s testimony from outside the Capitol was not indicative of a consensus from both ends of the regulatory policy spectrum when it comes to the need for some regulation of Facebook and similar companies.

“Facebook clearly dropped the ball here, and some governmental response is justified, but Congress must resist the urge to pass knee-jerk legislation,” Berin Szóka, president of TechFreedom, a libertarian-leaning think tank, said in a letter to members of Congress. “At a minimum, the FTC may be justified in concluding that Facebook’s failure to notify users about Cambridge Analytica’s misuse of Facebook data constituted deception by ‘material omission.’”

Allie Bohm, privacy counsel at Public Knowledge, a consumer advocacy group that generally supports greater regulation of technology companies, appeared to disagree with Szoka’s assessment.

“In the twenty-first century, it is impossible to meaningfully participate in society without sharing our personal information with third parties. These third-party companies and platforms should have commensurate obligations to protect our personal information,” Bohm said.

“Unfortunately, it has become increasingly clear that too many third parties fail to live up to this responsibility.”

“This hearing is a good start to begin addressing corporate collection and use of user data in the modern economy. But, a hearing alone is not enough. We hope that the Committees will use this hearing to build the record for strong, comprehensive privacy legislation.”

Zuckerberg continued his Capitol Hill testimony on Wednesday, April 11, before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

(Screenshot of a video by Capitol Intel of the scene as Mark Zuckerberg testified before the U.S. Senate on Tuesday, April 10, 2017.)

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Social Media

Americans Should Look to Filtration Software to Block Harmful Content from View, Event Hears

One professor said it is the only way to solve the harmful content problem without encroaching on free speech rights.

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Photo of Adam Neufeld of Anti-Defamation League, Steve Delbianco of NetChoice, Barak Richman of Duke University, Shannon McGregor of University of North Carolina (left to right)

WASHINGTON, July 21, 2022 – Researchers at an Internet Governance Forum event Thursday recommended the use of third-party software that filters out harmful content on the internet, in an effort to combat what they say are social media algorithms that feed them content they don’t want to see.

Users of social media sites often don’t know what algorithms are filtering the information they consume, said Steve DelBianco, CEO of NetChoice, a trade association that represents the technology industry. Most algorithms function to maximize user engagement by manipulating their emotions, which is particularly worrisome, he said.

But third-party software, such as Sightengine and Amazon’s Rekognition – which moderate what users see by bypassing images and videos that the user selects as objectionable – could act in place of other solutions to tackle disinformation and hate speech, said Barak Richman, professor of law and business at Duke University.

Richman argued that this “middleware technology” is the only way to solve this universal problem without encroaching on free speech rights. He suggested Americans in these technologies – that would be supported by popular platforms including Facebook, Google, and TikTok – to create the buffer between harmful algorithms and the user.

Such technologies already exist in limited applications that offer less personalization and accuracy in filtering, said Richman. But the market demand needs to increase to support innovation and expansion in this area.

Americans across party lines believe that there is a problem with disinformation and hate speech, but disagree on the solution, added fellow panelist Shannon McGregor, senior researcher at the Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life at the University of North Carolina.

The conversation comes as debate continues regarding Section 230, a provision in the Communications Decency Act that protects technology platforms from being liable for content their users post. Some say Section 230 only protects “neutral platforms,” while others claim it allows powerful companies to ignore user harm. Experts in the space disagree on the responsibility of tech companies to moderate content on their platforms.

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Big Tech

Surveillance Capitalism a Symptom of Web-Dependent Companies, Not Ownership

Former Google executive Richard Whitt critiqued Ben Tarnoff’s argument in ‘Internet for the People’ during Gigabit Libraries discussion.

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Photo of Ben Tarnoff, co-founder of magazine Logic and the author of “Internet for the People”

July 15, 2022 – A former Google executive  pushed back against a claim that the privatization of broadband infrastructure has created the world’s current data and privacy concerns, instead suggesting that it’s the companies that rely on the web that have helped fuel the problem.

Richard Whitt, president of technology non-profit GLIA Foundation and former employee of Google, argued that while the World Wide Web is rife with problems, the internet infrastructure underlying the web remains fundamentally sound.

Whitt was responding to claims made by Ben Tarnoff, a journalist and founder of Logic Magazine, at the Libraries in Response event on July 8. Tarnoff argued – as he does in his recent book, “Internet for the People” – that the privatization of broadband infrastructure in the 1990s has allowed the use and commodification of personal data for profit to flourish (known as surveillance capitalism).

The discussion took place during the Gigabit Libraries Network’s series “Libraries in Response.” The session was titled “If the Internet is Broken, How Can Libraries Help Fix it?”

Privatization, Tarnoff claims, has raised such issues as polarization of ideologies and the “annihilation of our privacy.” As a result, he said, the American people are losing trust in tech companies that “rule the internet.”

Whitt responded that the internet is working well based on the protocols, standardized rules for routing and addressing packets of data to travel across networks, derived at the onset of the internet.

The World Wide Web, a system built on the internet to allow communication using easy-to-understand graphical user interfaces, allowed for browsers and other applications to emerge, which have since perpetuated surveillance capitalism into the governing approach of the web that it is today, said Whitt, suggesting it’s not ownership of the hard infrastructure that’s the problem.

The advertising market that encourages surveillance extraction, analysis and manipulation is, and will continue to be, profitable, Whitt continued.

The discussion follows a Pew Research Center study that found that only half of Americans believe tech companies have a positive effect in 2019 compared to a seventy-one percent in 2015.

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Big Tech

American Innovation and Choice Online Act Has Panelists Divided on Small Business Impact

The bill is intended to prohibit product preferences on tech platforms, with some saying it could harm small companies dependent on those platforms.

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Panel at CSIS event on Thursday

WASHINGTON, July 6, 2022 – Observers are still divided about the effect on small business of legislation that is intended to keep large technology platforms from giving preference to their own products over others.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies hosted experts last month to discuss the American Innovation and Choice Online Act, which was introduced in January. The event heard both support for the bill, as well as concern that it could negatively impact smaller businesses that rely on the larger platforms.

“Existing antitrust law is not going to be enough to rein in the power of the largest tech platforms,” Charlotte Slaiman, competition policy director at public interest group Public Knowledge, said, adding the AICOA is very important for small business competition “to get a fair shot.”

“Fundamentally this is a really important…for competition because this protects small companies that are potential competitors against one of these large platforms,” she added.

Krisztian Katona, vice president of global competition and regulatory policy at the Computer & Communications Industry Association, however, said that after performing a cost-benefit analysis of AICOA, he expects the legislation will hurt business competition.

He said that the legislation would increase operating costs for smaller companies and force these companies to reduce the cost of their services. He predicts that close to 100 companies by 2030 would be negatively impacted by the legislation if it becomes law.

Others agree with Katona. A report in March by the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Council said small business owners felt the AICOA could be detrimental to them, saying it could increase prices. Meanwhile Michael Petricone, senior vice president of the Consumer Technology Association, said in June that small businesses would be affected the most by big tech regulation because they depend on those platforms.

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