The most troubling takeaway from two days of congressional hearings on Facebook Inc. was this: Mark Zuckerberg didn't want to explain how the social network operates.
The Facebook CEO ducked questions from lawmakers about what types of information the company collects and how it uses the data for advertising purposes.
Zuckerberg found it hard to plainly acknowledge that Facebook tracks users from device to device, collects information on websites people visit and apps they use, gathers information on people's physical locations, collects phone call logs from Android smartphones and pulls in some online activity from people who don't even have Facebook accounts.
Zuckerberg declined to acknowledge that Facebook's ad system and products are informed by all of this information gathering on and off the social network. If Facebook were a true bargain with users — they get a useful, free service in exchange for seeing advertising based on their interests and activity — then Zuckerberg should be comfortable explaining how it all works.
Instead, given the option to articulate Facebook's relationship with users (and non-users), he dodged. A lot.
He said he couldn't answer queries from Senator Roy Blunt, who asked on Tuesday whether Facebook tracks users across their computing devices or tracks offline activity. The answer to both is yes. During the House committee hearing on Wednesday, Zuckerberg claimed not to know what "shadow profiles" are, even though this term has been used for years to describe Facebook's collection of data about people who don't use its services by harvesting the inboxes and smartphone contacts of active Facebook users. (Zuckerberg reluctantly acknowledged that Facebook gathers information on people who aren't signed up for Facebook for what he said were "security purposes.")
Zuckerberg had to correct the record on Wednesday after he initially said — incorrectly — that Facebook's feature to download a user's entire data dossier has all the information Facebook has collected, including web browser history. Representative Joe Kennedy pressed Zuckerberg on whether people truly understand that Facebook targets ads based on a whole host of data and inferences its computer systems make about users' interests, not just the information they directly post on Facebook profiles or pages they "like." Zuckerberg didn't answer directly.
Zuckerberg also repeatedly and recklessly sought to conflate the ability of Facebook users to control who sees the information they post on Facebook and their relative inability to control what data Facebook collects about them. Zuckerberg was comparing apples to privacy-compromised oranges.
Yes, it's true that every time users write a fresh Facebook post or upload a new video, they are given the option to let everyone on Facebook see that information, or just Facebook friends or some other group. That's a handy way to control what information people can see, although it's far from foolproof.
But Facebook users absolutely do not have this level of control over the digital dossiers that Facebook collects about their activity on Facebook and beyond, nor do they have granular control over how advertisers can harness that information. (It is possible to turn off some Facebook data collection, but good luck figuring out how.)
At times, including in questioning by Representative Greg Walden on Wednesday, Zuckerberg answered direct questions about Facebook's data harvesting by talking about Facebook's features for choosing who can see a photo or post on Facebook. This was surely deliberate, and misleading. "I do think that we can do a better job of explaining how advertising works," Zuckerberg said as he finished his response, but he did not explain that Facebook's ad system works by harnessing all the pieces of information from social network users.
Most people do not understand the scope of Facebook's data collection. Lawmakers tried more than once to get Zuckerberg to say this, but he never did. Here's a piece of evidence lawmakers could have showed the CEO: In a survey conducted recently by Digital Content Next, a trade group of news organizations that is frequently critical of Facebook, a majority of respondents said they didn't expect the social network to track use of non-Facebook apps to target ads, collect their physical location when they're not using Facebook or harvest information from non-Facebook websites that people visit. Spoiler alert: Facebook does all of those things.
It's not people's fault if they don't know how Facebook works. If Zuckerberg and Facebook were comfortable with the data-based bedrock of their business, he should be able and willing to explain all the ways Facebook collects data on everyone and how it uses it.
It felt as though the company made a calculated decision to deflect rather than talk openly about the scope of Facebook data collection and its data-based ad system. And to me, that was a sign that Facebook is embarrassed about what it does for a living.
A version of this column originally appeared in Bloomberg's Fully Charged technology newsletter. You can sign up here.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Shira Ovide is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering technology. She previously was a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.
Bloomberg is a member of Digital Content Next.
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