Wednesday, Apr. 11, 2018
Tags: Audio, Congress, Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Wednesday, April 11, 2018. I'm Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
As Zuckerberg goes to Capitol Hill, Facebook faces fallout from misuse of user data
It's been many years since Americans have been so interested in Congressional testimony, but the audience yesterday for the testimony of Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, before a senate committee was not only huge, it was international. And as we're thinking about that for a moment, we need to understand how this kind of hearing has been transformed in American society. In years past, in decades previous, long before the rise of cable television, not to mention the digital media, these hearing were largely affairs limited to legislative interest. They might have an impact on policy, they might become something of a headline in print news, but these hearings were largely a matter of elected representatives facing down persons who would answer questions presumably because of the Congress's natural and constitutional responsibility to investigate and also because of the Congressional imperative to frame legislation.
But what has happened in the last several decades is that these hearings have become transformed into media events and the audience, when it comes to participants in these hearings, is no longer just those who are in the Congressional room, it extends to an international audience. But something else we need to understand is that every single participant in what Americans saw yesterday in the senate and today in the House is the fact that they are all actors on a stage and they are very aware of that fact. This is true not only of those who will testify such as Mark Zuckerberg is true of every Congressperson on the committee today and of every senator in that hearing yesterday they want to be seen and heard and they want to be remember for the questions they ask in the statements they make. And frankly sometimes are so long it's hard to actually believe there was a question.
On Monday in anticipation of the House hearings today, the committee released written testimony that Zuckerberg had submitted in that testimony says, "As Facebook has grown, people everywhere have gotten a powerful new tool to stay connected to the people they love, make their voices heard, and build communities and businesses." He went on to say, "But it's clear now that we didn't do enough to prevent these tools from being used for harm as well." Elsewhere in the written testimony Zuckerberg said, "We didn't take a broad enough view of our responsibility and that was a big mistake. It was my mistake and I'm sorry. I started Facebook, I ran it, and I'm responsible for what happens here."
Now what's particularly interesting is that this follows a pattern of similar kinds of apologies that Mark Zuckerberg has made every time there is some kind of data breach, some kind of misuse of the customer base, or some kind of controversy about Facebook. Zuckerberg has repeatedly taken what he claims as personal responsibility and promised to solve the problem. But what is happening this week is unprecedented because until now Zuckerberg has resisted successfully having to face down critics in this kind of forum, specifically a Congressional forum. To understand what's at stake financially for Facebook, just recognize that that social media giant, we're talking about a population of over a billion, that social media entity is a commercial entity. It is a corporation that exists by building wealth and by offering the potential of a profit. The main business model includes selling advertising on Facebook, and that means using the data culled from billions of users in order to translate that into information that will be commercially profitable.
But Facebook isn't just facing the immediate fall out to the controversy about the supposed misuse of its data by Cambridge Analytica, it's facing charges that the customary use that it sells on the commercial market is itself a misuse and a violation of the privacy rights of Americans. Scott Shane of The New York Times points out that there are huge financial issues at stake. He writes, "The committees are likely to ask about a consent decree that Facebook signed with the Federal Trade Commission in 2011, which said it had deceived customers by telling them they could keep their information on Facebook private and then repeatedly allowing it to be shared and made public." Shane goes on to say, "The FTC is now investigating whether the company violated the decree, which could make it vulnerable to fines that other the regulations could reach an astronomical sum; up to $41,484 for each of the millions of users whose data wen to Cambridge Analytica." Facebook denies that it has violated the 2011 decree.
Now you can do the math and take 78 million Facebook users and multiply that times a fine of $41,484 and you'll come to understand there truly are astronomical financial stakes very much at the center of this story. But we also have to recognize that a part of what's going on here is that Congress is going to be parading its [inaudible 00:05:18] before the American people over the power of social media. But at the same time, you can be guaranteed that those very members of Congress are going to be using social media to what they perceive to be their political advantage, even as the hearings are underway. All of this points to the fact that really isn't in question in these hearings and that is the fact that social media now represents a massive new reality that isn't going to go away. That raises the question; will it, could it, should it be regulated?
Now that's going to be the issue at the center of a lot of the testimony both yesterday and today and there are going to be members of Congress both in the House and in the Senate that are going to say what we need to do now is to regulate Facebook. That's not an irrational plan, but the problem is social media is such a giant industry and the technology itself, not to mention the legal and moral implications, are so massive, it's almost impossible to imagine what kind of regulatory system could actually be put in place. And then those operating from the Biblical world view and a Biblical understanding of sin know that if indeed you turn to regulators, the problem is then the expertise, the competence, and the morality of the regulators. The question becomes who's going to watch the watchers? And of course there is the other big lesson of regulation, even when regulation is necessary, and that is this; people who want to do evil will find a way to do it either by going around the regulations or by finding a way to violate them successfully.
One of the most interesting proposals being floated by some, and this comes even prior to the Congressional hearings, is declaring that digital information belongs to the individual, private citizen, not to any corporate entity or just to some emorphis reality in the digital world, and that that digital information can be bought and sold only by the private citizen. The problem with that of course is that that's exactly what we are in effect doing when we sign up for these platforms. When we click those permissions and acknowledge the policies, we are in effect, even if we are not receiving money, signing away the power of that privacy. It's rather contradictory on its face to talk about privacy in a world of social media, the words social and private don't go together. And that represents something of the quandary that will be represented in these Congressional hearings and will not be answered any time soon, if ever.
The other issue that Christians should think about here is that when a system of regulation is put in place, it will come under the same kind of regulatory regime that governs other forms of the media. And what that means is that social media would then not go away, it wouldn't necessarily even become less powerful, but it would be regulated in such a way that it might not turn out the way even the framers of the regulations would intend.
Could government regulation of social media lead to a crackdown on religious speech?
Now one of those issues, those unanticipated issues, was raised by Chris Wilson writing in The Wall Street Journal yesterday. He points out that a good deal of the public discussion in the United States, and this will be on the right and on the left, so you can say black lives matter on what hand and you can talk about conservatives on the other hand, that that discussion is allowed because social media is a free, rather unrestricted environment for this kind of communication, and for social networking as well.
But Chris Wilson goes on to make the point that when there is regulation and a reduction of this field, it is generally conservative voices that are eliminated. He raises the question, "Why should conservatives worry about this?" And he looks back to print media. He writes, "Look at the newspaper industry as an example. Across America, two paper towns once benefited from healthy competition between newsrooms. Then they became one paper towns. When news monopolies became the reality from Minneapolis to Houston, the news slanted further left. The Houston Chronicle, after vanquishing The Houston Post in 1995, lurched left editorially. Consumers in America's most populous purple county had nowhere else to go for local news." He warns a similar dynamic would likely play out if Congress imposed regulations on Facebook and its competitors. "A tool once successfully used by conservatives," he said, "could largely be throttled by those who already have access to the more liberal mainstream media."
But that's a consideration of the liberal/conservative divide. Christians need to be concerned about yet another issue. This kind of regulation could also lead to a restriction of the ability to express religious convictions, specifically Christian conviction, on the format of social media in general and Facebook in particular. We need to keep in mind that when people complain about offensive speech or postings, offensive messaging in social media, they could be referring to you or to me, or to anyone else. We can understand the political pressure and the social momentum towards regulating social media, but the very people who are calling for it may find their own voices silenced if indeed that medium is regulated.
Will outrage over data leaks lead to a change in users’ behavior? So far, the answer is “no”
But perhaps the most morally interesting dimension of all of this appeared in an article yesterday in The New York Times. It was on the front of the business section and the author is Andrew Ross Sorkin, who writes the Deal Book column for The New York Times. The headline of the piece: Our Privacy Has Eroded, We're Okay With That. The argument Sorkin makes is that Americans have generally made a deal when it comes to social media; a deal we are in general okay with. That deal is we will give you information if you allow us to connect, if you allow us to post, if you allow us to have friends and followers and social media, if you allow us all the goods and conveniences that come by the data and by the consumer power and by the convenience of social media, then we will allow you even to misuse our data from time to time, so long as it's not so personally costly. Sorkin makes the point that those who have actually suffered financial loss by the misuse of this data are a statistical anomalies, they are so rare. Most people looking at this continue to go on using social media.
Sorkin points out that social media's not the only arena in which this pattern is found. Americans tend to be outraged when there is a data breach in a major corporation, but they continue to shop at the corporation. They're outraged when there's a data breach in an insurance company or a credit card, but they continue to use the credit cards and they continue to use the insurance companies. Sorkin's point from a Christian world view perspective is really interesting. We do make these kinds of pacts, these kinds of deals, all the time. We will express outrage when something wrong happens, but we're not so outraged that we change our own personal habits. Not even our posting habits or our buying habits.
Sorkin also gets to the fact there just isn't much motivation for these giant technology companies to do much to protect our information. As he writes, "For all the head scratching and criticism over Facebook's slow response to various breaches and privacy fiascos, it wasn't completely irrational. The incentive," he writes, "for companies to go to great lengths to protect our data, with the exception of banks and financial firms, just isn't there." Later in his article, Sorkin points out, "Well, now more than 1.2 billion people have active accounts with Gmail, a service whose entire business model rests on Google being able to sift through your private messages. Apparently," he says, "it wasn't beyond the pail."
"When it comes to Facebook, Sorkin writes, "The problem is that Mr. Zuckerberg has been apologizing for years for all sorts of breaches of trust with his community," the word community is put there in quotation marks, "and guess what? After each mea culpa, the Facebook community has grown." So thinking along these lines, you recognize that even has Zuckerberg has been a reluctant witness before these Congressional hearings, the reality is that even as millions and millions of people, hundreds of millions likely will have exposure to these hearings, even as he's exposed to this audience, it could all add up to one further giant advertisement for Facebook. You want some proof positive of that? I'll tell you where to look. Look at the official pages of the members of Congress and the Senators who are asking what they believe to be the most pointed questions of Facebook. They're likely to put the clip of their moment in time before the cameras and before Mr. Zuckerberg on Facebook as quickly as they can.
Facebook’s imperative above all other imperatives: Simply connect
But before leaving Facebook, I want us to think about what might be an even bigger story, certainly for thinking Christians, a more fundamentally important story. It's also related to Facebook, but it was a little controversy likely to be completely eclipsed by the hearings and the current controversy over Cambridge Analytica. Here's where the real controversy should be found: In 2016, a man by the name of Andrew Bosworth, who was then the vice president of advertising at Facebook, wrote a memo that was officially entitled, "The Ugly." Deepa Seetharaman, the reporter for The Wall Street Journal puts it this way, "For many years, Facebook employees were told that growth was paramount. But during the spring of 2016, there were mounting questions internally about the ill consequence of growth at all costs." Listen carefully to this paragraph. "That mentality as laid out in a 2016 memo called "The Ugly" from a Facebook executive who defended to employees the social network's relentless pursuit for growth, even if it meant a user somewhere was bullied to death through Facebook or a terrorist attack was coordinated by the tool."
Now in all honesty, I can't imagine why this isn't the big story. We're talking about a memo that was released to Facebook employees by the man who was then the Vice President for advertising at Facebook and is now continuing in a major role at Facebook. The memo itself was even entitled "The Ugly" and the consequences of the memo are unfathomable. As Bosworth wrote in the memo, "The ugly truth is that we believe in connecting people so deeply that anything that allows us to connect more people more often is de factor good." Seetharaman points out this means that the argument from Bosworth comes down to the fact that the Facebook emphasis on growth, growth at any cost, growth as the single, central imperative was worth connecting millions of people, and it was justified despite the risk. As Bosworth said in the memo, "All the questionable contact importing practices, all the subtle language that helps people stay searchable by friends, all the work we do to bring more communication in, the work we will likely have to do in China someday."
Bosworth went on to say that it was all worthwhile simply because of the great moral and financial imperative to connect. Now what this points to are the most basic analysis of world view is that Facebook exists solely for the purpose of connection. That's its great power; connecting people. That's its great financial power, that's its great cultural power; it is making connections. It is not just social connections where an individual connects with friends or coworkers or perhaps with distant relatives or high school alum, it is the connection that is made by giant corporate interests and the consumers they're trying to reach. It is the connection that is also being made by dark factors on the web using that very information for nefarious purposes. And the stunning thing about this internal memo at Facebook is that a Facebook Vice President went on to say yes, this very platform and its power of connection can be used to bully someone, even unto death, and yes it could be used not only to connect friends with their college roommates, but it can be used by terrorist organizations to launch a deadly terror attack.
Sheera Frenkel and Nellie Bowles, writing another article, this one is The New York Times, published on March the 31st, said that both Bosworth and Zuckerberg had since disavowed the memo. Bosworth explained that he had intended to be provocative. But the most important insight from this angle of the story is the fact that Facebook has internally admitted that its driving issue, its central ambition at all times, the imperative above all other imperatives, is simply to connect.
But even though these stories are not tied historically, they are tied in the language. It was EM Forrester, a very influential novelist in the 20th century writing in English who used the imperative "only connect." What was Forrester's in that motto "only connect"? It was in the face of a secular age, in the face of atheism, in the face of the moral calamities of the 20th century, in the face of the fact that he believed all moral systems had broken down, that all morality had disappeared, all that was left was the mere potential and imperative to connect; to connect ideas, to connect people, to connect entities. That was it. Only connect. The purpose of writing literature is only to connect.
But whether we're talking about literature in the sterility of the 20th century or we're talking about social media in the frenzy of the 21st century, this much becomes clear and certainly Christians must see it very clearly; there is no satisfaction in the imperative that comes down "only connect." And this is because Christians understand that there is no connection without a moral context. There is no such reality as a connection that does not have moral meaning. Every single connection has moral meaning, it is situated in moral meaning, and its use is also a demonstration of moral meaning. That's what Facebook is really facing down in these Congressional hearings and that's what we all face in the reality that in a hyper-connected world, morality doesn't disappear, it just gets infinitely more complicated.
Washington DC vs. San Francisco: America’s new intellectual centers collide
But finally there's another angle to this story that is probably going to be ignored by most. I appreciate the fact that Tyler Cowen addressed the issue very clearly in the pages of Bloomberg Business Week. The headline of his article: "Two American Power Centers Are About to Clash." The subhead in the article: "The most interesting intellectual conversations right now are going on in San Francisco and Washington." The subhead than asks the question, "What happens as tech dreams collide with government realities?" Tyler Cowen is an astute observer of the American seam and the point he is making is that the intellectual conversation in this country has shifted away from cities like Boston and New York and Chicago and Los Angeles, and towards two great centers on opposite costs; San Francisco, and there he adds most of California and the west coast of Oregon, all the way up Seattle and Washington. That's the reality on one hand he calls San Francisco, and the reality on the other hand is Washington D.C. and its environs. They are two giant centers of intellectual activity.
They are perhaps, as Cowen argues, the two dominant centers of cultural production in this county right now, but they operate out of two very different worlds and in these hearings this week, these two worlds are visibly colliding. In Cowen's words, "America has two fundamental and really quite different cultural and intellectual centers, Washington and its environs, and the Bay Area." He says that includes Silicon Valley, San Francisco, and if he can cheat just a little, Seattle. He says that the DC area is the center of legalistic thinking, which is increasingly important with the growth of government and the regulatory state. But he goes on to say that when you're looking at the west coast, it is, "full of engineers of the more literal sort, producing rapidly saleable goods and services at least once the initial code is cracked. It's given us operating systems, internet search and browsers, personal computers, smartphones, ride sharing apps, Facebook, Amazon delivery, and much more.
But he says that the Bay Area is experimenting always with, "new methods for organizing motivating talent and it has realized," he says," in the less regulated parts of the economy where companies can get something done without first requiring too much permission from America's other intellectual center." But one of the points that Tyler Cowen concedes is that when it comes at least to Washington DC, there are two sides to a story. There are two major political parties, and, as he writes, "The resident intellectual class there is more or less evenly divided between left and right wing, giving it," he says, "a nice and potent diversity."
Now my only correction there is that it's not at all fair to say that it's even divided, but the fact that it's divided at all, and there is any conservative voice, is directly in contrast, as Tyler Cowen recognizes, with the left coast, with the west coast, where there is only ideological uniformity. It's not only the left, it's the far left, especially on social issues, and the only sense in which the Bay Area isn't completely left, it is when it comes of course to its elected officials, is on the issue of regulation, where Silicon Valley is glad for everyone else to be regulated, but not us, thank you very much.
It is really telling that in this account, Tyler Cowen explicitly says that even though New York is still the financial center, it's still very much the center for news production, it really isn't any longer the center of American intellectual conversation. "No," he says, "That's now bifurcated. You've got the regulatory, legalistically minded people thinking about policy and those big questions in Washington and you've got the technology folks thinking about the future; future of unbridled, liberating technology. That's their concern, and frankly, that's their believe system.
And just think about those hearings where Mark Zuckerberg showed up not wearing a turtleneck or a t-shirt or a hoodie, but a suit and tie. What does that tell us? It tells us that at least when Silicon Valley is called to a hearing in Washington DC they will dress DC, even as they will continue to think Silicon Valley.
Thanks for listening to the Briefing.
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