NEW YORK (Reuters Breakingviews) - Washington lawmakers are fond of grandstanding, especially when they get the chance to grill a hapless executive. When U.S. congressional members interview Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg on Tuesday and Wednesday, the temptation will be to score points by focusing on his all-too-apparent flaws. If they’re smart, though, they’ll focus on a bigger issue: whether Facebook is too complex to manage, whoever runs it.
It’s easy to poke fun at Zuckerberg as a hoodie-wearing kid. His robotic demeanor makes him appear expressionless, even when he’s sorry. A skit on “Saturday Night Live” leaned heavily on those qualities. Senators and representatives, though, have an opportunity to chase weightier topics, like how Facebook uses and protects the data of its 2 billion-strong community. The $450 billion firm has tended to respond in squirrelly dribs and drabs to such controversies.
One big question is how Facebook got caught short – twice over - in its treatment of Russian attempts to influence U.S. voters and the unauthorized handing of user data to consultancy Cambridge Analytica. Zuckerberg said the idea Russian agents had placed fake ads on Facebook was “crazy,” only to admit later that some 126 million Americans had been exposed. As for the Cambridge Analytica scandal, it took approximately three years for Facebook to learn that its requests for relevant data to be deleted may not have been obeyed, affecting about 87 million people.
In his prepared testimony, Zuckerberg acknowledges the company didn’t do enough, citing “a responsibility to not just build tools, but to make sure those tools are used for good.” What matters, though, is why it didn’t do enough. It could be that Facebook really was just too trusting. It could be that it didn’t really pay the issue much thought. Or it might be that the company’s processes and systems simply couldn’t keep up with its vast troves of complex data.
That last one might be the most troubling – because it would suggest regulation is necessary. As founder, chairman and boss, Zuckerberg controls more than half of the company’s vote, entrenching his power. But European watchdogs, set to enact privacy data rules in May that give consumers the right to know what information a company stores about them, have decided the product is bigger than the founder. The question now is whether U.S. lawmakers come to the same conclusion.
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