“I started Facebook, I run it, and I’m responsible for what happens here,” Mark Zuckerberg told the United States Senate in testimony earlier this month about the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the company’s scandalous handling of user data. But when it comes to testifying to the British Parliament, Zuckerberg has declined three requests to appear, which Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee chairman Damian Collins said was “absolutely astonishing…given these are questions of fundamental importance and concern to his users, as well as this inquiry. I would certainly urge him to think again if he has any care for people that use his company’s services.”
Why is Facebook afraid to testify to Parliament? Certainly the company’s last appearance before the Committee did not go well. A testy Facebook policy staffer, Simon Milner, appeared before Parliament in February, just weeks before the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke wide open in stories published simultaneously by the Guardian and the New York Times in mid-March. Milner, in retrospect, very nearly misled the MPs on the subject, such as in this exchange:
MP Christian Matheson: Have you ever passed any user information over to Cambridge Analytica or any of its associated companies?
Simon Milner: No.
Christian Matheson: But they do hold a large chunk of Facebook’s user data, don’t they?
Simon Milner: No. They may have lots of data, but it will not be Facebook user data. It may be data about people who are on Facebook that they have gathered themselves, but it is not data that we have provided.
Christian Matheson: How will they have gathered that data from users on Facebook?
Simon Milner: There can be all kinds of things that these organisations do. I think what data they have would be a good question to ask them, rather than us. We have no insight on that.
At the moment Milner uttered the words “we have no insight on that,” more than two years had passed since the company was first queried by Guardian journalist Harry Davies as to whether Cambridge Analytica had acquired user data via Facebook. The argument that Facebook played no role in enabling Cambridge Analytica to acquire what we now know is a dataset on more than 87 million Facebook users is disingenuous at best and an outright lie at worst.
Perhaps we can expect more forthright testimony this week from Zuckerberg’s surrogate, CTO Mike Schroepfer. The officer responsible for maintaining all of Facebook’s technology products, Schroepfer has not been much in the public eye since this scandal broke. He was, however, the author of the blog post in which Facebook admitted the scale of the Cambridge Analytica breach, signalling he is taking a leadership role in addressing the scandal following reports that the company’s chief security officer would be stepping down after significantly scaling down. Parliament should use this opportunity to query Facebook on Cambridge Analytica, and the company’s broader role and effects in democratic societies.
Here are a dozen questions that Parliament should ask:
1. A Vice President at Facebook, Andrew Bosworth, wrote an internal memo in 2016 which recently leaked that contains many concerning statements about your approach to privacy. Do you believe that, as Bosworth wrote, “anything that allows us to connect more people more often is *de facto* good”?
2. Upon discovering Cambridge Analytica had misappropriated Facebook data in December 2015, why did Facebook simply take the company’s word that they had deleted the data? Why didn’t you ban them from Facebook, report them to the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), sue them under the UK Data Protection Act (1998), or conduct an audit?
3. Did Facebook make any attempt to proactively contact any of the 87 million users you say had their data harvested by Cambridge Analytica in the more than two years after you were alerted to the breach, including British citizens? If not, why not?
4. Why did Facebook hire Joseph Chancellor, who was the business partner of Aleksandr Kogan, the person responsible for building the application that enabled the Cambridge Analytica breach? Why do you continue to employ him to this day? You appear to have suspended Kogan from Facebook when his name and activities became public, but continue to employ Chancellor whose name and relationship to the scandal has only recently become public.
5. Mark Zuckerberg told the US Congress that he was aware that Aleksandr Kogan sold the Facebook data he acquired to other companies. He said one was Eunoia, and that there “may have been a couple of others as well,” but that he would provide the names of those companies to Congress. Has he done so, and if so what were the names of those companies?
6. During the US Congressional hearings, Mark Zuckerberg was asked how many times Facebook has received reports of developers violating Facebook’s data privacy policies. When do you expect to produce that information, and will you provide it to Parliament?
7. Has Facebook made any further discoveries about the role of Russian trolls or Russian government agents on its platform that it has not disclosed to the US Congress or Parliament? What would you say is the total number of accounts the company has purged that are believed to be of Russian government origin?
8. Do you feel that non-Facebook users are aware of what aspects of their personal data are tracked and collected by Facebook, as well as what the data are used for and with whom the data are shared? Do you believe that people who have not signed up for Facebook are aware that they are being tracked?
9. Do you believe Facebook is doing enough to ensure that users have sufficient information about what personal data is collected and processed by Facebook, as well as what the data is used for and with whom it is shared? Do you believe that Facebook users have sufficient information in order to make informed decisions about whether to use your products?
10. How many websites have Facebook tracking software on them? What percentage of all internet sites have Facebook tracking software? How important is surveillance of the internet to Facebook’s business model?
11. An article dated 13 April 2018 published by The Intercept, claims that Facebook uses AI to predict individuals’ future actions for advertising purposes. Please describe the personal data used to determine these forecasts of individuals’ behaviour, and where the data is gathered from. Are individuals informed of this process/analysis? Do individuals have the ability to opt out of this behavioural analysis?
12. Is Facebook aware of studies that suggest social media may be highly addictive, and what does that mean for children on its platforms? Has Facebook done any internal research on this question, and will it share the results? Other evidence suggests social media causes depression among young people—is Facebook aware of these studies, and do they inform its product development processes or decisions to launch products like Messenger for Kids?
Hopefully, Schroepfer will approach Parliament with more humility than Milner. Democracies are grappling with the appropriate way to hold gigantic social media platforms accountable and responsible. These democracies have created the conditions for companies like Facebook to grow so powerful and profitable. It’s shameful that Mark Zuckerberg isn’t willing to address Parliament–but perhaps his CTO will be forthcoming. It’s question time for Facebook.
Photo credit: Andreas Rentz/Getty Images for Hubert Burda Media