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  April 13, 2018

Zuckerberg Hearing: An Opening for Regulating Social Media?

The two day congressional hearing with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg opens a door to regulating social media privacy, which is especially needed given that Facebook and similar media companies are virtual monopolies in their fields, says Justin Anderson
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Justin Anderson is a writer with Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting in New York City. His focus is on corporate power, political economy and foreign policy. You can follow him on twitter @JMOAnderson.


SHARMINI PERIES: It's the Real News Network. I'm Sharmini Pieres coming to you from Baltimore. Social media giant and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg concluded two days of Senate and House committee hearings on Wednesday and Thursday this week. 44 senators, almost half of the Senate, was there to see how Zuckerberg would respond to the recent fallout from the revelation that companies such as Cambridge Analytica have harvested the data of 87 million Facebook users. Cambridge Analytica is a political consulting and data mining company owned by conservative billionaire Robert Mercer, and until 2016 had Steve Bannon as its vice president. Zuckerberg apologized a lot, but senators were for the most part easy on him, and often quite ignorant of what Facebook actually does. Here's a clip of one of Zuckerberg's answers on the issue of surveillance.

MARK ZUCKERBERG: I think people often ask what the difference is between surveillance and what we do. And I think that the difference is extremely clear, which is that on Facebook you have control over your information. The content that you share, you put there. You can take it down at any time. The information that we collect you can choose to have us not collect. You could delete any of it. And of course, you can leave Facebook if you want. I know of no surveillance organization that gives people the option to delete the data that they have or even know what they're collecting.

SHARMINI PERIES: Joining me to discuss Zuckerberg's hearings and Facebook is Justin Anderson. He is a freelance writer who frequently covers media issues. He recently wrote an article for FAIR, titled "Who will take on the 21st century tech and media monopolies?" Thanks for joining us, Justin.

JUSTIN ANDERSON: Thanks for having me.

SHARMINI PERIES: So Justin, let's start off with the Zuckerberg's hearings. I mean, when you heard that little clip off Zuckerberg it seems to me he's skirting around some of the issues, because since the story broke there's been lots of people who've been investigating how Facebook is operating and the kind of data they have on us, including those that we are supposedly deleting is also captured and kept. So do you think you have any meaningful testimony, or anything meaningful is revealed by the hearings? And is this useful for us to regulate or bring issues of our privacy under some containment?

JUSTIN ANDERSON: I think there's, there's a bit of good and there's a bit of bad to come out of the hearings. Starting with the bad, it seems like most of the hearings were show trials for Zuckerberg rather than indictments of Facebook's monopolistic business practices. The good, however, is that there was at least some noting by some of the senators and representatives that Facebook was a monopoly. Surprisingly, I saw that Lindsey Graham had grilled Zuckerberg as to whether Facebook was a monopoly. Zuckerberg said that he doesn't believe that it is. And it's also unlikely that Republican senators like Lindsey Graham would actually go after Facebook on antitrust issues. But just to hear it mentioned and talked about is a good thing.

SHARMINI PERIES: And what did Zuckerberg say when he was asked about whether this is a monopoly?

JUSTIN ANDERSON: He denied that Facebook was a monopoly, saying that it doesn't feel like Facebook is a monopoly. I would certainly say that Facebook has a monopoly. They along with Google are arguably a duopoly in the digital advertising industry. Together they own about two thirds of all digital advertising on the Internet. That's not including China, but still, that figure is astronomical. And the power that those two companies wield over digital advertising is certainly much like a monopoly.

SHARMINI PERIES: Right. And on the issue of surveillance, Justin, we saw in the clip that Zuckerberg basically thinks that surveillance and privacy is a non-issue when it comes to Facebook because he says it's only the material you put up there. Just how powerful is Facebook, and how dangerous can it be in terms of the way it surveils us and tracks us?

JUSTIN ANDERSON: Well, I mean, at the end of the day you do get to decide what you put on the internet, but it's very hard to operate in this day and age without using a lot of these tech platforms like Facebook, or Google, or Amazon. And the amount of control that they have over users' data, particularly with regards to advertising and creating what Cambridge analytical calls psychographic models, or what Facebook calls the social graph, the ability to build these social profiles around people and then use those profiles to sell ads. It really contributes to the amount of power that Facebook has in surveillance and control over people's lives.

SHARMINI PERIES: Now, if you assume that these hearings are largely held in order that legislators, regulators could actually come up with some plans as to how to regulate the industry like this, Facebook CEO Zuckerberg actually conceded that it might be necessary to regulate this industry, but no clear path that was defined by way of questions, nor in terms of outcomes of these hearings as to how it might be regulated. What are your thoughts on that?

JUSTIN ANDERSON: So there's a number of different approaches that could be taken. I think the first is to emulate the European Union's data protection regulation, their General Data Protection Regulation, which goes into effect this May. It's very strict. It has requirements for monitoring and transparency that are nothing like that in the U.S. It requires data consent agreements for users and customers can ask to have their data deleted any time. It's definitely a much stronger enforcement mechanism that the United States can emulate. Also, you know, there's talk of Facebook creating a paid service, where users can opt out of sharing their data if they use the paid service. Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg has talked about this a little bit. There's also a bill up in Congress called the Honest Ads Act put forward by Senators Warner, Klobuchar, and John McCain that would require transparency for campaign advertisements online. So that that's one path.

And then finally, you know, if you look at just general antitrust regulation, the FTC essentially doesn't have any commissioners right now. Chuck Schumer has been holding up the nomination for the commissioner, one of the commissioners of the FTC, along with the other four for the Trump administration. And you know, just having the ability to look at antitrust, you know, former acquisitions of Facebook, like Instagram or WhatsApp. And you know, future purchases like TBH, which Facebook just acquired. Just looking at this sort of corporate consolidation is something that the executive agencies could definitely do a little bit tougher.

SHARMINI PERIES: Now, earlier on I referred to the article you had written in FAIR, which has a large section on media consolidation. What is the state of media consolidation, and why is existing antitrust laws so ineffective in doing anything about it?

JUSTIN ANDERSON: Well, if you look at media consolidation today, a lot of the big tech and media companies are, they're concentrated among maybe three, four, or five companies. You look at something like internet service providers there's only AT&T, Comcast, Charter, and Verizon. You look at big tech companies for digital advertising, you have Google, Facebook. You also have Amazon, Apple, Microsoft. And then general media companies, you have, you know, Comcast, and then CBS, FOX, is only a couple companies in each sector. And they're increasingly consolidating across sectors. So you know, Facebook, Google, Amazon, they're getting into content creation. Internet service providers like Comcast have properties in the media sphere. So this sort of cross-consolidation is definitely pervasive, and it limits consumers' choices.

JUSTIN ANDERSON: And most importantly, antitrust regulation for specifically companies that handle data like Facebook and Google and internet service providers, they are essentially regulated looking at cost to the consumer. So you know, you use Facebook or Google, you notice that they're free. So by going along that line and antitrust regulation, it's a very outdated way of thinking about things, because when you look at free, essentially free products online, the customers really are the advertisers, in this sense, whereas the consumers are the product.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Justin, I thank you so much for joining us today. And we'd like to follow up with you at some point about the kinds of regulations that need to come forward in order to to regulate this industry. Thank you so much for joining us today.

JUSTIN ANDERSON: Thanks for having me.

SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on the Real News Network.


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