- David Dayencontributor to The Intercept and columnist for The New Republic. His recent pieces include “Ban Targeted Advertising” and “The U.S. Government Is Finally Scrambling to Regulate Facebook.”
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is set to testify today on Capitol Hill amid the burgeoning scandal about how the voter-profiling company Cambridge Analytica harvested the data of more than 87 million Facebook users, without their permission, in efforts to sway voters to support President Donald Trump. In prepared remarks ahead of his testimony today, he writes, “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 run it, and I’m responsible for what happens here.” The company has also unveiled new privacy tools ahead of Zuckerberg’s testimony today. For more, we speak with David Dayen, a contributor to The Intercept and columnist for The New Republic. His recent pieces include “Ban Targeted Advertising” and “The U.S. Government Is Finally Scrambling to Regulate Facebook.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is set to testify today on Capitol Hill amid the burgeoning scandal about how the voter-profiling company Cambridge Analytica harvested the data of more than 87 million Facebook users, without their permission, in efforts to sway voters to support President Donald Trump. In his prepared testimony for today, Zuckerberg says, quote, “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 run it, and I’m responsible for what happens here.” This is Zuckerberg speaking on CNN last month.
MARK ZUCKERBERG: This was a major breach of trust. And I’m really sorry that this happened. You know, we have a basic responsibility to protect people’s data. And if we can’t do that, then we don’t deserve to have the opportunity to serve people. So, our responsibility now is to make sure that this doesn’t happen again.
AMY GOODMAN: The company has also unveiled new privacy tools ahead of Zuckerberg’s testimony today.
For more, we go to Los Angeles, California, where we’re joined by David Dayen, a contributor to The Intercept and columnist for The New Republic. His recent pieces include “Ban Targeted Advertising” and “The U.S. Government Is Finally Scrambling to Regulate Facebook.” David is also the author of the award-winning book Chain of Title: How Three Ordinary Americans Uncovered Wall Street’s Great Foreclosure Fraud.
So, David, talk about the significance of—well, you’ve read—he’s pre-released his statement, Mark Zuckerberg. What has happened at Facebook, and what needs to be done?
DAVID DAYEN: Well, it’s very significant that Mark Zuckerberg is appearing before Congress today. This is the first time that he’s done so. And Congress has really not kept up with the revolution happening online, as far social media and these companies are concerned. And they’ve sort of given over the playing field of regulation to Facebook, companies like Facebook, which have become really almost private governments, that are making these monumental decisions based on their business model, that have wide-ranging effects for elections, for the viability of businesses, for, you know, the mass problems that we see in places like Burma and the Philippines. It’s really consequential. And so, what we see today is really Congress trying to sort of catch up to where they should be and should have been for a long time, seeing that these companies are incredibly powerful, incredibly large and require a Democratic impulse to step in and make some changes.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, David, you heard Zuckerberg talk about how this is a mistake, a terrible mistake. But the reality is, this is the model. This is the way that Facebook makes money, being able to monetize the activity of the people on their network. This whole issue of the failure of congressional leaders to adequately regulate the development of the internet, the way they did television, the way that they did other forms of communication technology, the telephone, and, basically, the privatization of the most important means of communication that we have in the world today—what was the responsibility of Congress, that should have been, earlier on, tackling this problem?
DAVID DAYEN: Right, Congress absolutely should have stepped in much sooner than now, when we’ve already seen this problem. Obviously, as you mentioned, Facebook and Google and other social media sites make money off of exploiting the data of their users. Their users aren’t really the customers, they are the product, as it’s often said. And, you know, this has implications for privacy laws. It has implications for anti-discrimination laws. It obviously has implications for our elections. And these are all ways in which the government needs to get involved and come up with some real standards to protect people. And in their absence, Facebook has sort of done this on their own whim—really on the whim of one person: Mark Zuckerberg.
AMY GOODMAN: On Thursday, NBC’s Savannah Guthrie interviewed Facebook COO, the chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg. Let’s go to a clip.
SAVANNAH GUTHRIE: Could you come up with a tool that said, “I do not want Facebook to use my personal profile data to target me for advertising”? Could you have an opt-out button: “Please don’t use my profile data for advertising”?
SHERYL SANDBERG: We have different forms of opt-out. We don’t have an opt-out at the highest level. That would be a paid product.
AMY GOODMAN: David Dayen, respond to this. And talk about how what happened with Cambridge Analytica harvesting, what, now they’re telling us 87 million Facebook users, could have been prevented.
DAVID DAYEN: Wel, absolutely. You know—
AMY GOODMAN: And talk about her saying this would be a paid product.
DAVID DAYEN: Yeah, Sheryl Sandberg says that you would only have to be able to pay if you’re opting out completely of advertising. This is seemingly ridiculous. Facebook has 2 billion members of an audience. If a television station or radio station had that kind of massive audience, I think they’d figure out a way to make money with advertising, without harvesting the data of every single person. We went through many decades in this country without targeted advertising. I think we can go back to that.
The idea of an opt-out button is very similar to what—the regime that is being constructed in Europe. It’s called the GDPR, the General Data Protection Regulation, and it would require affirmative consent from people to have their data collected and sold to advertisers or used in the targeting of advertising. And I think that there are more and more people in Washington who are seeing that as a viable method to protect citizens. However, it’s very consent-based. We could do something stronger and just opt out, and certainly get rid of this idea that if one of your friends on Facebook takes a quiz, that they—that company that put the quiz together gets access to all of your profile data, which is exactly what happened in the Cambridge Analytica situation. Only about 270,000 Facebook users took that quiz, but because they got the derivative data of all the friends of those people, 87 million, at least—I mean, that’s the number they’re using now, 87 million users—had their data harvested and then put to use in political targeting.
So, you know, we need to really get a handle on this. I don’t think Facebook has a handle on it necessarily. They have millions of advertisers. They don’t know what any one advertiser is doing from one moment to the next. This is a problem of a company that’s really too big to manage. And government needs to step in with some clear rules around what is allowable.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But, David, specifically on that issue of all of the profiles that were harvested as a result of this voluntary quiz by only a few hundred thousand people, are there legal questions there for—or potential lawsuits by those people whose data was harvested without their participating at all in any kind of a survey?
DAVID DAYEN: Well, lawsuits have already been filed. I think there are eight consumer lawsuits, class action lawsuits. We’ll see how they work their way through the courts. Certainly, there are violations involved in a lot of this kind of targeting that we see. There’s a lawsuit right now being put forward by housing advocates, showing that advertisers used Facebook tools to create housing and employment advertisements that necessarily avoided African Americans and Hispanics from seeing the ads. And that seemingly violates fair housing, fair employment laws. There are all sorts of applications that you can use, when you can get down to that granular level and know, you know, practically everything about the individual to whom you’re serving that ad. It has all sorts of legal implications.
And that’s why—you know, I mean, I think what we’re going to see today in Congress is a lot of grandstanding, but I think, behind the scenes, there are people really seriously thinking through this and trying to come up with a way of dealing with these companies, that have gotten so large, that have such large troves of data, that are, you know, most inherently insecure, that offer so many tools to advertisers. What are the implications of that? And it’s something—it’s a place government needs to be involved; otherwise, we have regulation by Facebook, a private government, that is only really concerned with their own financial interests.
AMY GOODMAN: Should Facebook be nationalized?
DAVID DAYEN: That’s something that has been brought up by commentators. I think it’s an interesting way to go about it, to think about it, to regulate it as a public utility. There are ideas of, you know, things like interoperability, where you would be able to take your sort of social media graph to any competing site. This is what was done with AOL Instant Messenger way back in the turn of the century. And it enabled text messaging to sort of migrate away from this one site. Right now we have the situation where Facebook owns Instagram, Facebook owns WhatsApp. Anytime there’s a competitor to Facebook, they either buy it or they ape the technology that’s used within it, like they did with Snapchat. This is an anti-trust problem, that I think requires some solutions around that. And also, I think there needs to be very broad privacy regulations that understand, you know, that individuals that come to a site do not consent, or they do not have the expectation that everything that they’ve ever written, everything that they’ve ever put on that site, is going to be used in targeting them. This is the kinds of things we can do.
AMY GOODMAN: David Dayen, we want to thank you very much for being with us, contributor to The Intercept, columnist for The New Republic, most recent piece, we’ll link to, “Ban Targeted Advertising.” And we will bring you excerpts of Zuckerberg’s testimony tomorrow, in Congress, and commentary.