April 11, 2018 / 12:59 AM / 3 months ago

Breakingviews - Washington zeroes in on correct Facebook target

NEW YORK (Reuters Breakingviews) - U.S. lawmakers are zeroing in on the correct Facebook target. Whether they pull the trigger is another matter.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg listens while testifying before a joint Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees hearing regarding the company’s use and protection of user data, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis

Senators on Tuesday grilled Chairman and Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg during his first congressional hearing on the company’s data practices. Politicians often chew the scenery with long-winded, self-serving wind-ups, but Zuckerberg was peppered with some fairly pointed questions that got to the heart of the issue.

Facebook’s business model depends almost entirely on advertising. In exchange for allowing consumers to use the social network for free, it mines information to sell to brands.

The committee members grasped that Facebook is getting the better end of the deal. Confusing terms of service written in hard-to-understand language obscure the true nature of the agreement. Facebook may provide tools that let members access all their information and control who they share it with, yet effectively deploying them is not an easy task.

Even the Facebook founder acknowledged that the average person doesn’t understand the terms of service or read them. But he effectively defended the status quo, saying few would bother to read a more detailed description of the terms.

He was dodgy on the question of whether Facebook would embrace Europe’s new General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR as it’s known, more broadly. In May, social networks like Facebook will be required to get specific consent from people to use their data. Facebook has said it intends to adopt these policies elsewhere, including in the United States, but has been cagey about how it would actually do so.

Senator Lindsey Graham posed the big question when he asked the 33-year-old founder why Facebook should be allowed to regulate itself. Zuckerberg said he would be open to “the right regulation,” and both sides were content to leave the matter there. That may explain why Facebook stock rose during the hearing to end the day with a gain of more than 4 percent.

Such forbearance may not be sustainable, though. As long as the $450 billion company’s ad-driven business conflicts with users’ privacy interests, it can’t be trusted to police itself.

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