As Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg appeared before Congress this week, politicians stressed the need for regulation to secure end users’ data privacy on social media platforms.
The series of hearings on Tuesday and Wednesday gave members of Congress an opportunity to question Facebook about multiple recent scandals that left user data completely open, as well as its policies around data privacy in general. But a large part of the discussion also revolved around how the government could work with and regulate massive social media platforms when it comes to data privacy.
“We need baseline protections that stretch from Internet service providers, to data brokers, to app developers and to anyone else who makes a living off our data,” said Congressman Frank Pallone, a Representative from N.J., during week’s hearing. “We need to figure out how to make sure these companies act responsibly, even before the press finds out.”
Zuckerberg himself said on Wednesday’s hearing that “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.”
The social media company has been in public scrutiny since March, when it was discovered that a third-party application had handed over the data of millions of platform users to Cambridge Analytica – a consulting group that has worked on several high-profile political campaigns, including that of President Donald Trump’s – since 2015.
According to Facebook, up to 87 million people may have had their data improperly shared with Cambridge Analytica.
Facebook’s fallout continued over the past week, after Zuckerberg acknowledged that a Facebook reverse search tool may have compromised the data of the social network’s two billion users.
Amid Facebook’s failings, many end users are looking to the government to enforce fair regulations that determine how private data is collected, stored and shared on social media platforms.
What Type Of Regulation Currently Exists?
Currently, regulations that directly impact Facebook’s control and protection of end user privacy are ramping up as data security comes into the spotlight.
While some representatives said they’d like to keep regulation to a minimum – such as Rep. Bill Johnson and Representative Chris Collins – all members of Congress seemed to show bipartisan support for some degree of regulation over social media channels when it comes to data privacy and end user protections during the hearing.
Currently, a Federal Trade Commission consent decree from 2011 requires the social network to receive explicit permission from users in regards to sharing their data with third parties.
The FTC in March announced it is launching an investigation into Facebook’s data privacy practices after the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Facebook could rack up to $40,000 in fines per violation if found guilty, according to CNBC.
In October 2017, Senator Mark Warner along with Senators Amy Klobouchar and John McCain introduced the Honest Ads Act, which aims to provide more transparency for online political advertisements.
The act, which came about after discoveries last fall that Russian nationals bought ads on social media platforms such as Facebook, would mandate that digital platforms with more than 50 million unique monthly visitors keep a record of advertisers spending more than $500 on ads – and make them available to the public.
Zuckerberg, for his part, said during the hearing when asked about the law by Klobouchar that he would work with the government in support of it, and that the act “is an important area for the whole industry to move on.”
Other social media platforms have listed support for the act as well, including Twitter, which in a tweet said it believes the act “provides an appropriate framework for such ads.”
Twitter is moving forward on our commitment to providing transparency for online ads. We believe the Honest Ads Act provides an appropriate framework for such ads and look forward to working with bill sponsors and others to continue to refine and advance this important proposal.
— Twitter Public Policy (@Policy) April 10, 2018
The California Consumer Privacy Act is another data regulation that could apply to Facebook and social media privacy.
If approved, the act would enforce more transparency around data that is being stored by companies, as well as enable consumers to opt out of companies selling their data.
While Facebook initially donated $200,000 to a campaign against the bill, the social media giant on Wednesday told Threatpost it would no longer back oppositions to the ballot measure.
“We took this step in order to focus our efforts on supporting reasonable privacy measures in California,” a Facebook spokesperson told Threatpost.
The Browser Act of 2017 is another regulation that aims to protect private data online. The bill authorizes the FTC to enforce information privacy protections allowing users to opt out of the use of their user information depending on the sensitivity of the information. Essentially, “what this would do is have one regulator, one set of rules for the entire ecosystem,” said Congressman Marsha Blackburn, who discussed the implications of the bill during Zuckerberg’s hearing.
When asked by Blackburn if he would commit to working to help pass privacy legislation and the Browser Act, Zuckerberg said he’s not familiar with the details of the act yet.
After the Facebook hearing, meanwhile, senators also rolled out a new bill called the CONSENT (Customer Online Notification for Stopping Edge-Provider Network Transgressions) Act that would place restrictions on data collection by Facebook and other social media services.
The CONSENT Act was introduced by Senators Richard Blumenthal and Ed Markey would rely on the FTC to enforce violations from social media companies. Markey said in a Tweet that “we cannot rely on Facebook to self-regulate.”
We cannot rely on @Facebook to self-regulate.
Congress should immediately pass my CONSENT Act before more Americans' personal information falls into the wrong hands. pic.twitter.com/JmJ24ZqrIR
— Ed Markey (@SenMarkey) April 10, 2018
Moving forward, it remains yet to be seen whether Facebook will follow through with its promises to work with the government around regulations for privacy and data protections.
Privacy experts, for their part, want some sort of process in place holding Facebook and other social media platforms accountable for protecting data and keeping user information private.
“Facebook’s ethos of connection and growth at all costs cannot coexist with users’ privacy rights. Facebook operates by collecting, storing, and making it easy to find unprecedented amounts of user data. Until that changes in a meaningful way, the privacy concerns that spurred these hearings are here to stay,” said Gennie Gebhart, researcher with the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Regardless, the FTC and Congress also have a responsibility to continue asking the difficult questions around data security on social media, said Lina Khan, Director of Legal Policy at Open Markets.
“The Facebook problem is a market power problem,” said Khan. “The hearings revealed that members of Congress are still coming around to recognize this reality, but the good news is the we already have a host of tools for fixing Facebook. The FTC should immediately get to work, and if it fails to do so, Congress must step in.”