Recently, the Senate Judiciary and Commerce, Science, and Transportation committees questioned Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO of Facebook with regard to the recent Cambridge Analytica data privacy breach scandal.The breach of personal data and privacy hits very close to home for most, as, in the age of technology, where surveillance capacities have become increasingly advanced over time, it seems as if our lives get more and more transparent every day. If one takes into consideration other privacy breach scandals, especially ones brought forward by the likes of Snowden regarding the abuses of government, it becomes clear why anything relating to this issue will be an open wound for most people.
The hearing raised questions about user data security but also about the possibility of government passing more regulations in order to keep Facebook’s power and influence in check and make it a more responsible company. It was said at the hearing that as the tech giant grows, so too does its social responsibility. And, government regulations offer to bring the best solutions in the area of responsibility, accountability and restraint.
These sound like good ideas, even, one might say, commonsensical ones. However, while the corporate environment is viewed as self-serving, aggressive and, corrupt, it cannot be said that a government, be it the American one or any other, is lacking in any of these characteristics. Check and balances on both are always a good idea. However, since government and private companies are two different categories of subjects, one must not make the mistake to believe that a ‘one size fits all’ solution would have any chance of success. While the legislative branch has other branches of government to balance it, a private company only needs one such balancer, competition. Consumer choice resulting from competition is the only way in which one could truly punish a company, since, this would have a direct effect on its bottom line. There are many reasons for which competition may be considered the best balancer.
Firstly, as Zuckeberg and some members of the committee pointed out, more regulation usually leads to big companies being protected. Since they have the means at their disposal they can comply with more regulation and quickly fix any mistakes, whereas little companies would not have such means. This translates into competition being greatly stifled.
Secondly, in this particular case, as Soave’s article points out, it does not seem as if the members of this committee know enough about the workings of Facebook to be entrusted with the responsibility to regulate: “Sen. Roy Blunt, (R–Mo.), for instance, didn't seem to understand that Facebook lacks a means of accessing information from other apps unless users specifically opt in. The same was true of Sen. Roger Wicker (R–Miss.), who needed a lot of clarification on how Facebook Messenger interacts with cellular service. Zuckerberg had to carefully explain to Sen. Brian Schatz (D–Hawaii) that WhatsApp is encrypted, and Facebook can't read, let alone monetize, the information people exchange using that service.” Of course, there are already laws and regulations in place for both the private sector in general and tech companies like Facebook in particular to follow. But unless the consumer gets more similar choices of companies in the future, Facebook and the like will simply go on with their business, while any potential competition will be killed by regulation before they get the chance to start. This will lead to stifling of innovation, less consumer choice to the point where companies such as Facebook can become untouchable giants, and, finally it will lead to an unhealthy market environment.
“Sen. Patrick Leahy (D–Vt.) brought along a poster on which his office had printed out images of various Facebook pages. Leahy asked whether these were Russian propaganda groups. "Senator, are you asking about those specifically?" Zuckerberg asked. He of course had no way of knowing what was going on with those specific pages, just from looking at pictures of them. "I'm not familiar with those pieces of content," Zuckerberg finally conceded.” All of this shows the perils of not just adding more regulation but having people who have no idea about how a system works make the rules.
A particularly disturbing moment was when Senator Lindsay Graham was questioning Zuckerberg about a comment a Facebook employee had made internally about how anything that allows them to “connect more people more often is de facto good”. Graham expressed his worries with regard to such an idea and asked Zuckerberg what he thought about it. At this point the Facebook CEO pointed out that they have a lot of discussions internally and that this was written as an internal note with which he and many others at the company disagreed. This sounds like a healthy attitude for a company to have, in terms of hearing differing opinions and having such internal discussions. The distressing answer came from the senator, who stated that this was an opinion which disturbed him and that if somebody who worked for him had said this they would be fired. In other words, he does not see the importance of differing opinions in a company such as Facebook, which, as the members of the hearing committees had stated themselves, has an immense responsibility to society and ethics in general.
The other issue was whether or not Facebook was a monopoly, to which Zuckerberg answered that it does not feel that way to him. The Senator followed up with a question about why Facebook should be trusted to self-regulate, when they have all of these issues, including the possibility of being a monopoly. This brings us back to what Facebook’s CEO had stated earlier, that is that more regulation would help big companies such as his and sink any potential start up competition. In other words it was as if the Senator was saying that if there is the chance of the company becoming a monopoly, then there should be more regulation, so that even less competition should threaten its status.
It does not take much research to look up and understand where government regulations have gone wrong and have hurt rights and freedoms. In the case of Facebook being regulated, the future does not show much promise. It is obvious that there is not a good understanding of how this platform works among those who would have it regulated, as proven by the fact that Zuckerberg had to repeat himself multiple times in his answers because they did not seem to register with his audience, and that most of the questions he was asked could have been easily answered by simple familiarity with the Facebook network’s workings. He was asked a few times to give yes or no answers to questions which, as he himself noted, could not have been answered by a simple yes or no. Not only did it look like his questioners had not done their research on the matter, they seemed to have either lacked the interest or the capacity to understand it. Adding more regulations to the ones already existing is bad enough, but when one considers the government’s attitude on the matter, it is clear that nothing good will follow in the event of such regulations. The problem here is not how Facebook will cope with the regulations, but what the effects of more such rules will be on new, smaller companies trying to provide similar services.