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What Zuckerberg’s congressional testimony doesn’t say

There’s a lot of keen analytical hindsight on display in Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg’s written testimony to Congress ahead of his appearance at hearings on Wednesday, but nothing that indicates Facebook is ready to come to terms with the problems rotting the core of the social network.

The bulk of Zuckerberg’s opening statement is an historical analysis of the events of the past two years that have bruised the company’s reputation and share price.

Zuckerberg is defending his company on two fronts as he faces down the members of Congress that could regulate his company out of existence — user privacy and platform integrity.

In the testimony, Zuckerberg highlights the initial steps that Facebook has taken to close down access for third parties and to do more to combat fake accounts and the spread of misinformation.

These steps constitute what are now Zuckerberg’s usual assurances… Facebook is sacrificing its own profits to develop new tools and hire new personnel to combat bad actors that would leverage Facebook’s user information for their own fun and profit. Facebook has taken steps before the U.S. election to root out bad actors and will take even more steps now — since those initial efforts weren’t enough.

Near the close of his written testimony, Zuckerberg writes: “I want to be clear about what our priority is: protecting our community is more important than maximizing our profits.”

What Zuckerberg’s testimony fails to mention, as ever, is whether users themselves will ever be protected from Facebook.

Ultimately Facebook’s scandal is about how much the company knows about its users and how much power those users then have to control how Facebook applies (or shares) its knowledge.

As Wired columnist Zeynep Tufekci pointed out in a column this weekend, that’s been Facebook’s problem since the company’s inception.

By now, it ought to be plain to them, and to everyone, that Facebook’s 2 billion-plus users are surveilled and profiled, that their attention is then sold to advertisers and, it seems, practically anyone else who will pay Facebook—including unsavory dictators like the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte. That is Facebook’s business model. That is why the company has an almost half-a-trillion-dollar market capitalization, along with billions in spare cash to buy competitors.

All of the steps that Facebook is taking now to “make sure what happened with Kogan and Cambridge Analytica doesn’t happen again” only achieve one thing — consolidating Facebook’s control over the user data that it can make available to its customers.

The policies just reduce the funnel of information that application developers, advertisers and others can freely access (the emphasis here is on free). For those who want to pay the company for the information — there’s no guarantee that it won’t be used in some way.

As Tufekci writes, Facebook is a surveillance engine — that’s the core of its business and the sale of that surveillance to bidders is the way that it functions to connect its “community.” And protecting that community is a good way to also protect Facebook’s profits.

The problem for Facebook begins with the platform itself — and Zuckerberg’s designs for it. And it won’t be solved with a single congressional hearing.

To pre-empt Congressional questioning and change the conversation, Zuckerberg could have offered solutions for Facebook to proactively address the problems that bedevil it — beyond the adoption of the One scenario that could free Facebook from the advertising chains that ostensibly bind it to being a digital surveillance state is the introduction of a subscription service (as my colleague Josh Constine suggested earlier this year).

For regulators looking at potential legal solutions, the application of GDPR standards across the entire Facebook platform would be a step in the right direction. Zuckerberg has committed to it, but his company has a history of failing to live up to its promises to users. Perhaps Congress will find a way to convince Facebook’s chief to help the company keep its word… and avoid another apology tour.

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Facebook’s new authorization process for political ads goes live in the US

Earlier this month — and before Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress — the company announced a series of changes to how it would handle political advertisements running on its platform in the future. It had said that people who wanted to buy a political ad — including ads about political “issues” — would have to reveal their identities and location and be verified before the ads could run. Information about the advertiser would also display to Facebook users. Today, Facebook is announcing the authorization process for U.S. political ads is live. Facebook had first said in October that political advertisers would have to verify their identity and location for election-related ads. But in April, it expanded that requirement to include any “issue ads” — meaning those on political topics being debated across the country, not just those tied to an election. Facebook said it would work with third parties to identify the issues. These ads would then be labeled as “Political Ads,” and display the “paid for by” information to end users. According to today’s announcement, Facebook will now begin to verify the identity and the residential mailing address of advertisers who want to run political ads. Those advertisers will also have to disclose who’s paying for the ads as part of this authorization process. This verification process is currently only open in the U.S. and will require Page admins and ad account admins to submit their government-issued ID to Facebook, along with their residential mailing address. The government ID can either be a U.S. passport or U.S. driver’s license, a FAQ explains. Facebook will also ask for the last four digits of admins’ Social Security Number. The photo ID will then be approved or denied in a matter of minutes, though anyone declined based on the quality of the uploaded images won’t be prevented from trying again. The address, however, will be verified by mailing a letter with a unique access code that only the admin’s Facebook account can use. The letter may take up to 10 days to arrive, Facebook notes. Along with the verification portion, Page admins will also have to fill in who paid for the ad in the “disclaimer” section. This has to include the organization(s) or person’s name(s) who funded it. This information will also be reviewed prior to approval, but Facebook isn’t going to fact check this field, it seems. Instead, the company simply says: “We’ll review each disclaimer to make sure it adheres to our advertising policies. You can edit your disclaimers at any time, but after each edit, your disclaimer will need to be reviewed again, so it won’t be immediately available to use.” The FAQ later states that disclaimers must comply with “any applicable law,” but again says that Facebook only reviews them against its ad policies. “It’s your responsibility as the advertiser to independently assess and ensure that your ads are in compliance with all applicable election and advertising laws and regulations,” the documentation reads. Along with the launch of the new authorization procedures, Facebook has released a Blueprint training course to guide advertisers through the steps required, and has published an FAQ to answer advertisers’ questions. Of course, these procedures will only net the more scrupulous advertisers willing to play by the rules. That’s why Facebook had said before that it plans to use AI technology to help sniff out those advertisers who should have submitted to verification, but did not. The company is also asking people to report suspicious ads using the “Report Ad” button. Facebook has been under heavy scrutiny because of how its platform was corrupted by Russian trolls on a mission to sway the 2016 election. The Justice Department charged 13 Russians and three companies with election interference earlier this year, and Facebook has removed hundreds of accounts associated with disinformation campaigns. While tougher rules around ads may help, they alone won’t solve the problem. It’s likely that those determined to skirt the rules will find their own workarounds. Plus, ads are only one of many issues in terms of those who want to use Facebook for propaganda and misinformation. On other fronts, Facebook is dealing with fake news — including everything from biased stories to those that are outright lies, intending to influence public opinion. And of course there’s the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which led to intense questioning of Facebook’s data privacy practices in the wake of revelations that millions of Facebook users had their information improperly accessed. Facebook says the political ads authorization process is gradually rolling out, so it may not be available to all advertisers at this time. Currently, users can only set up and manage authorizations from a desktop computer from the Authorizations tab in a Facebook Page’s Settings.

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