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Opinion

Facebook and the Standard of Witnesses and Lawmakers

Rightly so, America’s Congress has called Mark Zuckerberg to answer questions on the abuse of data gathered by Facebook by external parties.

But as the CEO of Facebook answered questions, it became apparent that a number of Senators – who are no doubt perfectly capable individuals – were unfamiliar with Facebook, WhatsApp, even how the internet ‘works.’

“The senators, who were grilling Mark about Facebook’s role in the Cambridge Analytica data scandal, also opened themselves up to ridicule, with some pretty unbelievable questions,” said the BBC (1) While the subtitle on Vox’s website read, “If lawmakers want to regulate Facebook, they might need to get on the same page about what problem they’re trying to solve.’ (2)

In the two sources of Islam, the Quran and the Sunnah, there is a clear injunction and demand for competency and capability for judges/lawmakers as well as those who are giving testimony. Also one of the most misunderstood verses of the Quran, calling for two women witnesses, is the perfect example of how those who are less capable of knowing or understanding the specifics of a subject – in the context of the Quranic verse, financial transactions – should seek help and support from another who does have knowledge of the area.

Watching the hearings live, every time a strange question was asked, all I could think of was how poor the understanding these individuals have about Facebook, and in some cases, how the internet works in general. Those less familiar should have been briefed beforehand, particularly given the importance of the subject.

A selection of the strange comments:

Zuckerberg, ‘There will always be a version of Facebook that will be free.’

Senator Orrin Hatch, ‘If so, how do you sustain a business model in which users do not pay for your services.”

Zuckerberg, ‘Senator, we run ads.’

Senator Hatch, ‘I see. That’s great.’

Senator Lindsey Graham, ‘Is Twitter the same as what you do?’

Senator Chuck Grassley “Mr. Zuckerberg, a magazine I recently opened came with a floppy disk offering me 30 free hours of something called America On-Line. Is that the same as Facebook?”

Senator Brian Schatz, ‘If I’m emailing within WhatsApp, does that ever inform your advertisers?’

Senator Bill Nelson, “Yesterday when we talked, I gave the relatively harmless example that I’m communicating with my friends on Facebook and indicate that I love a certain kind of chocolate. And all of a sudden I start receiving advertisements for chocolate. What if I don’t want to receive those commercial advertisements?”

Missouri Representative Billy Long, ‘What was Facemash and is it still up and running?’ – (For those less familiar, it was started 15 years ago at Harvard and shut down within a few days).

That so many questioning Zuckerberg were unfamiliar with Facebook, asking mundane, obscure and strange questions, doesn’t instill confidence in Congress’s ability to hold Facebook to account for the way it has mismanaged data.

As Jessica Guynn, summed it up perfectly on Twitter, ‘You cannot hold a company accountable if you don’t know how its service works.’ (3)

If there was a single saving grace, it was Senator John Cornyn for example who asked, “Previously, early, in the past, we’ve been told that platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, the like are neutral platforms and the people who own and run those for profit … bore no responsibility for the content. You agree now that Facebook and other social-media platforms are not neutral platforms, but bear some responsibility for the content?”

To which Zuckerberg replied, “I agree that we’re responsible for the content.”

Facebook is not alone on the internet in the way it gathers and manages data. An entire data gathering industry exists for any brand with financial resources to use and access in an effort to learn about, and reach wider spectrum of audience. At times it seemed as if some in Congress were blaming Facebook for the flaws of now normalized industry process.

Like the person less familiar with financial transactions, as cited in the Quran, may struggle to secure their rights without the help of those more familiar with financial transactions, some in Congress too must take advice and have a better understanding of how the internet works, to ensure that meaningful, relevant and useful regulations are rolled out, particularly if people’s privacy and rights are to be better respected in our increasingly digital age.

(1) http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/newsbeat-43722444

(2) https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2018/4/10/17222062/mark-zuckerberg-testimony-graham-facebook-regulations

(3) https://twitter.com/jguynn/status/983811400479866880

About Farrukh Younus
Farrukh I Younus has a background in mobile phone strategy across Europe and Asia, and has visited China on more than 25 occasions. Dedicated to understanding and delivering solutions based on new technology, Younus has spoken on the subject to the EU in Brussels, and regularly attends industry-leading conferences. He currently runs a video platform, Implausibleblog, delivering lifestyle content via social media; where his focus is on understanding consumer behaviour with regards to digital content and digital advertising. His interests include travel, nouvelle cuisine, and chocolate.