Sure, Mark Zuckerberg’s two days in the congressional hot seat was cathartic. Especially if you’re concerned about Internet privacy, bot accounts and, oh, the possibility that online shenanigans handed Trump the election. And, yes, the resulting memes were priceless.
But don’t hold your breath waiting for Washington to rein in Facebook. At least, not in the short term.
“I think a lot of legislators are waiting to see if [the online industry] can correct the problems on their own,” said U.S. Rep. Joaquín Castro, who sits on the House Select Committee on Intelligence. “If we don’t see that, then it’s quite possible there will be some legislation within the next year or two.”
The San Antonio Democrat said he’s in favor of efforts to verify real people are behind social media accounts and to prevent companies like Facebook from sharing private user data without explicit consent. However, he acknowledges that for there to be action now, lawmakers should have been on the case a couple of years ago.
Indeed, Congress’ record of keeping up with quick-morphing technology is abysmal, experts say. And that’s distressing news for users, said Deanna Cuellar-Cintron, a founder of San Antonio’s UpgradeSA, a nonprofit that advocates for digital literacy and erasing the digital divide.
“Once again, it will be up to us to be better keepers of our own data,” she said.
Here are a few more reasons that Zuck’s grilling likely won’t signal a serious legislative clampdown:
Midterms are on the horizon.
Given the enormity of the issues involved, it would be great for lawmakers to act fast. Isn’t protecting privacy and stopping Big Bad Vlad from fucking up our elections something every voter can get behind? Problem is, regulating Facebook or any other complicated business takes time, serious staff scrutiny, and (gasp!) working across the aisle. If both houses can’t get some momentum going on the issue in coming weeks, experts say, they’ll be way too consumed by hanging onto their jobs in the fall elections.
Getting tough with Facebook isn’t enough.
The Cambridge Analytica thing’s bad, but have we already forgotten that credit bureau Equifax allowed the Social Security Numbers of 143 million people to slip out and then stayed quiet about it? When it comes to consumers’ personal data, it’s not just Facebook that’s got holes in its pockets. Data breaches have hit everyone from Target customers to Ashley Madison clients. “What we need is an omnibus bill that protects Americans’ privacy, whether it’s from an online operator, a credit bureau or a supermarket,” said Roger Entner, founder of Boston-based Recon Analytics, which tracks tech trends. “Just putting a finger in the most recent breach in the dike isn’t enough.”
Congress is cozy with capitalists.
Even though Silicon Valley tends to be friendlier with the Dems than the GOP, it’s not like either has done much to rein the techies in so far. Since 2013, Facebook lobbyists have written checks totaling nearly $600,000 to the lawmakers questioning Zuckerberg at the hearings, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. Stretch the date back to 2007, and its current slate of lobbyists have forked over $5.5 million to federal candidates, leadership PACs and party committees.
Congress will politicize it.
And in silly ways to boot. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz wasted most of his time grilling Zuckerberg on whether Facebook censors right-wing content and treats Trump supporters unfairly. Even by Cruz’s standards, asking the CEO if he knew the political orientation of the 15,000 to 20,000 people working on his company’s security and content review team was some goofy shit. And it completely missed the very real issues dogging Facebook’s more than 2 billion regular users.
The old guys just don’t understand.
Seriously, watch the hearings. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, 62, at one point asked Zuckerberg, “Is Twitter the same as what you do?” And 84-year-old Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, bless his heart, continued to refer to Facebook and other social media platforms as “websites.” To effectively regulate, these folks need to understand what they’re making rules about. And it’s clear a wide swath of them don’t. “The key takeaway from [the Senate hearings] was that none of them had used Facebook — well, maybe one or two,” analyst Entner said. “It shows they’re in a bubble unencumbered by the technological reality the rest of us live in.”
Stay on top of San Antonio news and views. Sign up for our Weekly Headlines Newsletter.