Congress vs. Facebook: Lack of tech understanding or political language?

Watching C-Span is like watching paint dry or like watching Windows slowly work through several months of updates. I don’t have the patience. So, I listened to a New York Times Podcast and a CBS news story about Zuckersberg’s solo testimony before Congress.

The news folks revealed what I thought would happen. The hearings were like a five hour tech support call. The Senators and Congressman seemed to stumble around trying to get sound-bites in for their constituents. Zuckerberg repeatedly had to say, “We already do that.” or “We already have that.”

Frankly, the poor showing by our elected officials may not demonstrate anything other than Congress’ attempt to make it easy for the U.S. public to understand. C’mon! Senators and Congressmen have substantial staffs who have tech expertise. So. Here you have our elected representatives attempting to ask intelligent questions about a subject with which they seem to be totally ignorant.

EXAMPLES from an Inc story by Minda Zetlin:

1. “Is Twitter the same as what you do?”

South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham (R) asked this as he was seeking to discover if Facebook is a monopoly. “It overlaps with a portion of what we do,” Zuckerberg said.

2. “If I’m emailing within WhatsApp…does that inform your advertisers?”

That question came from Hawaii Senator Brian Schatz (D), who seemed unaware that WhatsApp is a chat–not email–platform. Zuckerberg, manfully resisting any temptation to correct him, simply said that content on WhatsApp would not lead to related ads.

3. “How do you sustain a business model in which users don’t pay for your service?”

This surprising question came from Utah Senator Orrin Hatch (R). Zuckerberg blinked for a moment–he couldn’t believe it either–and then said simply, “Senator we run ads.”

“I see. That’s great.” Hatch responded.

4. “What was Facemash and is it still up and running?”

Missouri Representative Billy Long asked that question, much to Zuckerberg’s embarrassment. If you’ve watched The Social Network, as Long evidently has, you know Facemash was an early Zuckerberg project in which users compared two photos of women and picked which was hotter. But Zuckerberg started Facemash from his dorm room 15 years ago and Harvard shut it down within days.

5. “What if I don’t want to receive [ads for chocolate]?”

Apparently, Florida Senator Bill Nelson (D) is fond of a particular type of chocolate, and having mentioned that fact to some Facebook friends, is now seeing ads for that chocolate. His question might be a good one but it’s one for the entire internet, not just Facebook, as anyone who’s ever shopped for anything online and been dogged by ads for that same item already knows.

Zuckerberg said that users can turn off third-party information within Facebook if they don’t want that info used to select ads for them. But, he added, “even though some people don’t like ads, people really don’t like ads that aren’t relevant.”

6. “My son is dedicated to Instagram so he’d want to be sure I mentioned him while I was here with you.”

That loving parental plug came from Missouri Senator Roy Blunt (R). It was a useful reminder that Zuckerberg is the real star in this roomful of powerful elders. And it wasn’t the only one.

7. “Would you bring some fiber because we don’t have connectivity?”

West Virginia Senator Shelley Moore (R) made this request–some of her state’s rural areas apparently lack broadband. Zuckerberg said there’s a group within Facebook bringing connectivity to rural areas and “we would be happy to follow up with you on that.”

8. “Some people refer to [Peter Thiel’s startup Palantir] as Stanford Analytica. Do you agree?”

Washington Senator Maria Cantwell (D) posed this odd question on her roundabout way to asking whether Cambridge Analytica’s data-gathering was the brainchild of a Palantir employee, as recent media reports have said. There’s no particular reason to think Zuckerberg would know the answer to either of her questions, and he said he didn’t.

9. “Did you know that the Motion Picture Association of America is having problems with piracy and…this is challenging their existence?”

Georgia Representative  Buddy Carter (R) asked this question after first noting the rampant sale of opioids and ivory from endangered elephants over Facebook. Never mind that piracy takes place all over the internet and not just Facebook, or the absurdity of suggesting that it poses an existential threat to the Hollywood movie industry. Zuckerberg merely replied: “Congressman, I believe that has been an issue for a long time.”

Some expert observers said after the hearings were done that Congress could have been a lot harder on Zuckerberg if its members were better informed about how social networks and the internet work. If they were, their questions might have been less entertaining. On the other hand, these are the congressional committees charged with overseeing the web and ensuring all our data is safe there. So we all might be better off.

 —End of content by Minda Zetlin
There you have it. You decide. Is this a problem with Senators and their staffs attempting to create language to communicate with tech/internet ignorant constituents, or just tech/internet ignorance on the part of our elected leaders? I think, perhaps both.

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