Mark Zuckerberg’s dreaded homework assignments

Over two days, almost 10 hours.

If you watched every moment of Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony in front of Congress this week, you’ll know he rolled out one phrase an awful lot: “I’ll have my team get back to you.”

Now some of these were bits of data Mr Zuckerberg simply didn’t have to hand – such as why a specific advertisement for a political candidate in Michigan didn’t get approved.

Other follow ups, though, will require some hard graft from his team. What they produce could provide even more negative headlines for the company, as it is forced to divulge more of its inner workings than it has ever felt comfortable with.

Looking through the transcripts, I’ve counted more than 20 instances where Mr Zuckerberg promised to get back to representatives with more information. But these are the assignments I think could cause the company the most headaches – and provide some revealing answers.

1) Data on non-users

Set by: Congressman Ben Lujan (Democrat, New Mexico)

“You’ve said everyone controls their data, but you’re collecting data on people who are not even Facebook users who have never signed a consent, a privacy agreement.”

Dubbed “shadow” profiles, details of exactly what Facebook gathers on people who haven’t even signed up to the service has been always been a bit of mystery.

Even, apparently, to Mr Zuckerberg himself. He testified that he didn’t know the term, but acknowledged the firm did monitor non-users for “security” purposes.

Mr Zuckerberg promised to share more details on what data is gathered on people who don’t sign up for Facebook, as well as a full breakdown of how many data points it has on those who do.

In a related request, Mr Zuckerberg will provide details on how users are tracked (on all their devices) when they are logged out of Facebook.

2) Moving to opt-in, not opt-out

Set by: Congressman Frank Pallone (Democrat, New Jersey)

“I think you should make that commitment.”

Creating new regulation will be an arduous, flawed process. But one thing Facebook could do right now? Move to an opt-in model, one which requires users to decide to make something public, as is the default (and most popular) option for posting content now.

In a similar vein, Mr Zuckerberg was asked to get back to Congressman Frank Pallone on how the company might consider collecting less information on its users.

3) Repercussions for censorship mistakes

Set by: Congressman Steve Scalise (Republican, Louisiana)

“Was there a directive to put a bias in [the algorithms]? And, first, are you aware of this bias that many people have looked at and analysed and seen?”

One surprising admission made by Mr Zuckerberg before these hearings was that despite acknowledging the company made big mistakes, nobody has been fired over the Cambridge Analytica affair.

Representative Steve Scalise wants to take questions on accountability a step further.

In cases where Facebook reverses a decision to remove content – i.e. admitting it over-moderated – what kind of repercussions did those responsible face? If someone created an algorithm that unfairly filtered certain political views, was there any kind of punishment?

4) Specific rules for minors

Set by: Senator Ed Markey (Democrat, Massachusetts)

“We’re leaving these children to the most rapacious commercial predators in the country who will exploit these children unless we absolutely have a law on the books.”

On Facebook the minimum age of users is 13, not counting the company’s Messenger for Kids app (which doesn’t collect the type of data Facebook’s main app does).

But for those aged 13-18, or maybe 21, what happens in those oh-so-delicate years should be protected by tighter rules, Senator Ed Markey suggested.

Mr Zuckerberg said the idea “deserved a lot of discussion”, but maybe not a new law. He promised to get his team to “flesh out the details”.

5) How many ‘like’ and ‘share’ buttons are out there?

Set by: Congresswoman Debbie Dingell (Democrat, Michigan)

“It doesn’t matter whether you have a Facebook account. Through those tools, Facebook is able to collect information from all of us.”

It seems like everywhere you look there is a button prompting you to “like” or share things on Facebook – indeed, there’s one on the page you’re reading right now.

A request to at least estimate how many of Facebook’s buttons are out there might at first seem like an abstract demand – but the response could be quite something.

The “like” buttons enable Facebook to track users on pages that are not part of Facebook itself, providing more data for advertisers.

If it’s even possible to tot up how many buttons are out there on the web, expect a number in the hundreds of millions – that’s hundreds of millions of pages with which Facebook is tracking your activity beyond its own borders.

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The man with (almost) no data trail

No Facebook account. No Twitter. No Instagram.

No smartphone. No tablet. No online banking.

Just an email account accessed at the local library and a chunky Nokia 3210 with a built-in torch.

Felix, not his real name (as you might expect…), lives without the tools and social media accounts that are woven into most of our lives.

For many of us it’s a love-hate relationship – enjoying the regular social contact with friends and family and the efficiencies but lamenting the banality of much of it and the hours it sucks up.

And most recently there’s the matter of the digital trail we leave behind us, the breadcrumbs that social media companies gather up and sell, as we lose track of who knows what about our movements, our needs, our impulses and behaviours.

Felix, a 33-year-old gardener, has been swimming against the tide for years.

In 2018, it may sound like a staunch political statement to veer away from technology and the internet, he says, but, in truth, he just never fancied it.

As new technology emerged and became mainstream, Felix wasn’t drawn to it.

“They weren’t useful to me. I got along without them, like playing the trombone,” he says.

But the world spun several times and a couple of decades later Felix now finds himself something of an anomaly.

People treat him with a sort of low-key admiration and slight bemusement, he says, and when new people see his phone for the first time “they crack up”.

“Most people think if you can live your life that way, good on you. But most wouldn’t want to live like this,” he says.

And don’t write off Felix as someone with little knowledge of the modern world – he is aware of today’s technology used by others his age.

“I would never say you should throw your Alexa in the bin,” he says.

“But it is easier to have a natural human engagement with the world and other people without layers of technology interfering with that.”

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    He does use the internet at the library, going online about twice a week for an hour at a time.

    Typically he’ll work through a list of admin tasks, searching for numbers, addresses, or finding out about a new band – music is his passion. Rarely will he venture onto Facebook or Twitter.

    “When Facebook came out I was interested that it was becoming so popular. So I had a look at a friend’s profile to see the shape of it – that was enough for me. I didn’t touch it for 10 years,” he says.

    Now he might look up a public event advertised on it or scroll through Twitter, albeit without feeling the need to create his own account.

    Asked what he does with all the time he saves by avoiding social media, he laughs and calls it a funny question.

    “Social media is not a fundamental human need. I’m just not sure people were wandering round in 1995 thinking it’s a crying shame I don’t know what Kim Kardashian had for lunch.”

    There are no computers at his family home in Kent, where he lives with his parents, and no tablets or Netflix, just a Freeview box and a TV.

    “I don’t have a hunger for the new thing.

    “If I don’t see Game of Thrones, I assume it will be around for a long time. It diffuses the immediate requirement to gobble things up,” he says.

    But he is on the electoral register and his home number is in the phone book. This type of public data bothers Felix less.

    “It’s older, more firmly established. It was not driven by a thirst for monetising thoughts and personality. It was more expressly an exchange,” he says.

    He also carries an Oyster travelcard, meaning authorities could track his movements around the capital.

    “I don’t love the fact that someone could find out where I’m travelling to in London, but my thinking isn’t fuelled by paranoia.”

    Being traceable is an unpleasant symptom of life today, he says, and if he can avoid his life being publicly available, he will.

    Felix says he expects to see a few more people leave Facebook and chop up their credit cards as a sort of political statement but believes the uptake is so complete and the digital footprint is so deep, most of us are welded to it – it’s how we process our world.

    At times, this interview has been uncomfortable for Felix, who asked us not to share his real name.

    “I am quite far away from having a digital identity,” he says. “It’s quite a big step for me to have something documented for me online.”

    But he says he can understand the interest in his own non-digital stance, given the recent attention around Facebook and what it does with our data.

    News that the social network users’ data is harvested and sold without explicit permission did not come as a surprise to Felix but he does find it distasteful that Facebook packages itself with a friendly face as though it’s more than just a business.

    Does he feel relieved that his own data was never at risk?

    “There is a small part of me that thinks it’s nice I don’t have to have that on my mind,” he replies.

    Felix says he has no intention of changing tack, despite everyone around him, including his older brother, having “normal” attitudes towards technology.

    But, surely, there must be something he feels he is missing out on? Breaking news updates, social gossip, looking through pictures of events he has attended?

    Finally, he cracks… but just a little.

    “I’m indifferent to pictures of that gig, that dinner we went to, but I do have a pang about the wedding pictures I might miss seeing. I don’t get to see them because no hard copies exist of them.”

    But is that enough incentive for Felix to get a Facebook account, to surrender to a world of likes and random friend requests. Still his answer remains an emphatic “no”.

Zuckerberg: I’m still the man to run Facebook

Despite the turmoil that continues to surround his company, Mark Zuckerberg has insisted he is still the best person to lead Facebook.

“When you’re building something like Facebook which is unprecedented in the world,” he said on Wednesday, “there are things that you’re going to mess up.

“What I think people should hold us accountable for is if we are learning from our mistakes.”

As well as being Facebook’s chief executive, Mr Zuckerberg is chairman of the company’s board. When asked if his position had been discussed, he replied: “Not that I know of!”

The mere possibility that his leadership is in question is a scenario few would have predicted even a month ago.

But recent reports around improper data gathering by third parties – as well as fake news and propaganda – have prompted some to question Mr Zuckerberg’s ability to lead a company that some think has grown beyond his control.

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    ‘By design, he can’t be fired – he can only resign’

    Scott Stringer, head of New York City’s pension fund, said this week that Mr Zuckerberg should step aside. The fund owns approximately $1bn-worth of the social network.

    “They have two billion users,” Mr Stringer told CNBC.

    “They are in uncharted waters, and they have not comported themselves in a way that makes people feel good about Facebook and secure about their own data.”

    A piece in technology magazine Wired called for Mr Zuckerberg to step down in order to let Facebook start a “reputation-enhancing second chapter”.

    “He doesn’t just lead an institution that touches almost every person on the planet,” wrote Felix Salmon.

    “He also, thanks to financial engineering, has a majority of shareholder votes and controls the board, and is therefore answerable to no one.

    “By design, he can’t be fired – he can only resign. Which is exactly what he should now do.”

    ‘A man often criticised as lacking empathy’

    Mr Zuckerberg’s conference call went as well as the 33-year-old could have expected.

    Indeed, at one point he encouraged more time to take more questions.

    From his answers we learned a little more about the real toll of the negative publicity and the “deleteFacebook” movement. And so far the answer is: not much.

    There has been “no meaningful impact that we’ve observed” he said, before quickly adding: “But look, it’s not good!”

    What we couldn’t tell during the call, of course, was to what extent Mr Zuckerberg was being quietly guided by his team in the room.

    But for a man often criticised as lacking empathy, it was a strong display lasting almost an hour. Investors certainly thought so – shares were up 3% once the call ended.

    Next week he will face a potentially tougher prospect, this time in front of the cameras, when he heads to Washington to testify before Congress.

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      Indeed, this session with the press was perhaps the ideal dress rehearsal.

      The dynamic around Mr Zuckerberg’s leadership could change dramatically in the coming months, as investigations – most notably from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) – begin to probe deeper into how Facebook handled the public’s data.

      If the company is seen to have fallen short of its responsibility, and is hit with a potentially enormous fine, it could increase pressure on Facebook to make serious personnel changes.

      So far, despite all of the apologies and admissions of poor judgement, Mr Zuckerberg told reporters that not a single person at the company had been fired over the Cambridge Analytica fiasco.

      The buck stops with him, he said – and indeed it might.

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Tumblr deletes ‘Russian troll’ accounts

Blogging platform Tumblr has deleted 84 accounts it says Russian propagandists used to spread disinformation during the 2016 US election.

The accounts are believed to have been used by Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA) – an organisation linked to many different web-based campaigns.

Tumblr said it had uncovered the fake accounts while helping an official investigation into the IRA’s influence.

Last month, 13 Russians linked with the IRA were indicted by the US government.

The individuals were charged with trying to manipulate American voters via social media.

‘Incendiary claims’

Tumblr said after discovering the accounts’ Russian connections, it had:

  • shut them down
  • deleted all the posts they had made
  • notified US law enforcement agencies

    But the continuing official investigation into the activities of the IRA had prevented it releasing details before now.

    Tumblr said it would also let anyone who had interacted with the fake accounts know what had happened.

    “We’re committed to transparency and want you to know everything that we know,” it said in a statement.

    Tumblr said it would let individual users decide whether they wanted to delete the chains of links and comments they had added to the Russian posts, which were “often challenging or debunking the false and incendiary claims in the IRA-linked original post”.

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      And it would step up monitoring of its own service in an attempt to stop future abuse by state-backed trolls and propaganda units.

      Other social media services have purged themselves of allegedly IRA-backed accounts in recent months.

      Last year, Facebook said 120 Russian-backed pages had created 80,000 posts received by more than 29 million Americans directly.

      The information reached many more as those initial viewers passed them on to others.

      In December, Facebook introduced a tool that it said would let users know if they had interacted with the IRA-backed accounts.

      Earlier this month, social-news network Reddit said it had removed “hundreds” of accounts it suspected of being used by the IRA.

      In February, Twitter removed many thousands of so-called “‘bot” accounts it said were being used to artificially inflate the importance of messages sent by Russian social-media workers.

Tech Tent: Facebook’s data privacy crisis

What have we learned this week about the dangers of sharing our lives on Facebook – and can we now take back control?

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    This week’s Tech Tent explores how the biggest crisis in the social media company’s history has unfolded – and asks what might happen next. Will Facebook really change its ways, or will regulators have to step in and make it be more transparent about how it uses our data?

    After all, according to one of our guests Emma Mulqueeny, it and other platforms “utilised the easiest business model they could and closed their eyes and crossed their fingers that it would be too annoying, too complicated or too late by the time people started wanting to take control of their own data”.

    Some people have now decided to take to the courts to assert their rights over their own data. Among them is a US citizen, Prof David Carroll. He is taking Cambridge Analytica to court in the UK to get access to data he says it holds on him.

    The company, which acquired the Facebook profiles of 50 million people from an academic researcher, boasted in the past that it had 4,000-5,000 data points on just about every American citizen.

    Prof Carroll tells Tech Tent that this boast inspired him to demand his file but what he received from the company was “alarming but not complete”, a model of the political beliefs he probably held and his likelihood to vote.

    Convinced that there must be far more data, he went to court to seek it – not in the United States but in the UK where the law is more friendly to this kind of case. With Europe’s major new data protection law GDPR arriving in May we can expect more cases to cross the Atlantic.

    In the meantime, some people have decided the only answer is to get off Facebook – although. whether the fact that #deletefacebook has been trending says anything about the numbers actually leaving is open to doubt.

    And for many people in developing countries where Facebook is synonymous with the internet that will not look like a good option, But Marieme Jamme, a Senegal-born entrepreneur and founder of a movement which aims to give African girls skills in computing and technology, that is another reason why Facebook’s power needs to be curbed.

    She tells us that governments across Africa have seen just how much influence the social network has and are spending big money to use it to try to swing elections. “We open our doors to Facebook,” she tells us. “The average African spends six to seven hours on it, I’m not saying it’s 100% bad but we need to regulate it and at the moment there is no regulation.”

    In Africa and elsewhere, there are now growing calls for Facebook’s wings to be clipped. The coming weeks will show whether this really has been a lightbulb moment where two billion Facebook users wake up to the dangerous bargain they have struck with the social network – or whether they go on sharing their data with not a care in the world.

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Craigslist drops dating ads after new law

Classified advertising website Craigslist has closed its dating ads section in the US, in response to a new bill against sex trafficking.

The bill states that websites can now be punished for “facilitating” prostitution and sex trafficking.

Ads promoting prostitution and child sexual abuse have previously been posted in the “personals” section of Craigslist.

The company said keeping the section open in the US was too much of a risk.

In a statement, Craigslist said the new law would “subject websites to criminal and civil liability when third parties (users) misuse online personals unlawfully”.

“Any tool or service can be misused. We can’t take such risk without jeopardising all our other services, so we are regretfully taking Craigslist personals offline,” it said.

In March, US congress passed the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (Fosta). It will apply to all states in the US.

Websites are not usually held responsible for the content that members post – as long as illegal material is removed as soon as the service provider is made aware.

However, the bill states that “websites that facilitate traffickers in advertising the sale of unlawful sex acts” should not be protected.

It imposes fines and prison terms for those who own or operate a website that facilitates prostitution.

On Thursday, social network Reddit also banned its escorts message board.

It said “paid services involving physical sexual contact” were against its latest policies.

Mark Zuckerberg spins himself some time

There are two ways to look at Mark Zuckerberg’s comments on Wednesday, his first since the Cambridge Analytica crisis unfolded.

They showed either a chief executive getting on top of the situation, and making what sounded like significant concessions in areas we wouldn’t expect.

Or, it was a skilled, composed display of PR spin – a media appearance for which he had almost six days to prepare.

Speaking to CNN’s Laurie Segall, Mr Zuckerberg made it look like he was giving up a lot, while simultaneously dodging the big issues.

Yes, he said he welcomed more regulation – but in a way that wouldn’t have that much impact on Facebook’s business at all.

Yes, he said he would be “happy” to testify before Congress and other committees around the world – but immediately gave himself the get-out clause he has used to avoid all of the other hearings so far.

Yes, he did say sorry – but only for the situation, not specifically for the actions of his company.

Simply – Mr Zuckerberg did enough to buy some time as he tries to get his company in order, but not much more than that.

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    His comment – “I actually am not sure we shouldn’t be regulated” – seemed like a major admission that the time may have come for stricter rules on his business.

    In reality, he was advocating for a bill that would arguably have more impact on the people who advertise on Facebook than Facebook itself.

    “I think there are things like ads transparency regulation that I would love to see,” he told CNN.

    He was referring to the Honest Ads Act that’s being debated by US politicians right now, a proposed law that would force buyers of any online advertising relating to candidates in an election campaign to be more transparent about funding. In other words, the internet equivalent of messages like “I’m Donald Trump and I support this message” being tacked to TV spots.

    The Honest Ads Act would also require companies like Facebook to take “reasonable” steps to determine that no foreign power was buying ads.

    Here’s what’s worth knowing: following the fall-out over Russian-bought ads in the 2016 US presidential election, Facebook said it created the tools needed to handle political ad spending better.

    So if the Honest Ads Act was passed today, chances are Facebook would already be in compliance.

    Dodged hearings

    In the days following the Cambridge Analytica revelations, several investigatory committees in the US and Europe said they would be calling on Mr Zuckerberg to testify in person.

    “The short answer is I’m happy to,” he told CNN. “If it’s the right thing to do.”

    This has been Mr Zuckerberg’s position all along.

    In the past, he’s sent people like lawyer Colin Stretch, who took the lion’s share of questions when the social media companies were summoned to Washington late last year.

    When it wasn’t lawyers, the company opted to send specific department heads, such as policy boss Monika Bickert.

    But to be fair to Facebook, this is a valid approach. If Mr Zuckerberg is a good boss capable of delegating effectively, his department heads would certainly know more about their respective areas than he would.

    It’s worth remembering that when it comes to political theatre, those calling Mr Zuckerberg to Washington would enjoy very much the chance to look tough and impressive when dealing with a powerful tech leader.

    “That’s not a media opportunity – or at least it’s not supposed to be,” Mr Zuckerberg told CNN.

    “We just want to make sure we send whoever is best informed to do that.”

    The investigations looking at Facebook are focused on areas advertising, manipulation, consent and safety. Facebook has a top expert for each of those areas. But Mark Zuckerberg, it’s entirely reasonable to say, isn’t one of them.


    When his initial statement was posted, those who read it noticed something immediately: he didn’t say sorry.

    Later, in follow up interviews – he appeared to offer something of an apology.

    “So this was a major breach of trust and I’m really sorry that this happened,” he told CNN, and repeated in similar words to Wired magazine, tech publication Recode and the New York Times, all of which were given interviews on Wednesday.

    And he is “sorry” – sorry that the company’s missteps and naivety (his word) led to $50bn being wiped off the company’s value and reputational damage from which it may never fully recover.

    His words today expressed an apology for the result, not the cause. Remember, it’s possible to feel sorry for one’s self.

    Analytica comeback

    For me, the most surprising remark Mr Zuckerberg made today was his answer to a question from the New York Times.

    “Are you giving any thought to allowing Cambridge Analytica back in?” asked the newspaper’s reporter, Sheera Frenkel.

    “We’re certainly not going to consider letting them back onto the platform until we have full confirmation that there’s no wrongdoing here,” Mr Zuckerberg said.

    So, it’s possible.

    Mr Zuckerberg’s recent struggles as chief executive have been because of his inability to understand the root of the public’s anger. First on fake news, and now this.

    Some people think that the public is less concerned about the specific nuances of whether or not a policy was breached, and more about the broad ethical stance of Facebook on the use of its data to achieve the aims that Cambridge Analytica promises its clients.

    Mr Zuckerberg had the chance to say such activity was no longer welcome on his network, but chose not to take it.

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