How controversy changed Facebook's mission

Facebook is moving to protect user privacy and police content following the recent data controversies. CNN's Clare Sebastian reports.

Posted: Apr 11, 2018 9:02 AM
Updated: Apr 11, 2018 9:02 AM

The much-anticipated showdown between Silicon Valley and Washington, DC, is center stage this week, as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before House and Senate panels about the mishandling of Facebook data.

Senator John Thune opened Tuesday's Senate hearing by urging Zuckerberg to ensure his dream "doesn't become a privacy nightmare" for millions of Americans.

I believe Zuckerberg is capable of addressing Thune's concern, and without assistance from the federal government.

Facebook is already taking steps to address concerns over privacy, safety and the sanctity of democracy. Because the social media giant is imposing new standards of transparency and accountability to address the privacy breach, Congress should hold off on imposing regulations.

In other words, Facebook can self-regulate -- and we should give it a chance to put its new policies into practice.

While hearings are underway on the Hill, the social media giant has begun the unenviable task of notifying the 87 million users whose personal data was improperly obtained by political research firm Cambridge Analytica.

And I, for one, am interested in seeing Facebook address this wrong, given my own experience with Cambridge Analytica. While serving as Communications Director on the 2016 Ted Cruz for President campaign, we contracted with Cambridge Analytica. It promised to deliver a data service enhanced by psychological voter profiles that could predict the personality and possible political leanings of those they target. Cambridge Analytica claimed to have the "secret sauce" for the optimum voter files.

That turned out not to be the case, and ultimately we used voter files from the Republican National Committee and data modeling firm i360. The foundation for all of our data and analytics was created by the Cruz Director of Analytics, Chris Wilson. Cambridge Analytica simply operated as data scientists on Wilson's team. That didn't stop the firm from taking credit for several Cruz primary wins and the Trump victory.

But the actions of Cambridge Analytica are just one piece of the Facebook puzzle that will be taken apart during the congressional hearings.

Senator Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, sees the Zuckerberg testimony as a moment of reckoning, calling it "high noon for Facebook and the tech industry."

However, the question is not what Zuckerberg is going to do to survive the anticipated political grandstanding by members of Congress, but what Facebook is going to do to protect privacy and retain the trust of its 2 billion users.

To address the data breach, Facebook has taken steps to safeguard user privacy by putting stronger protections in place -- beginning with updating the site's privacy settings. In addition, they plan to investigate all apps with access to large amounts of information, restrict access to user data and ensure users are aware of who has access to their personal data.

As for the issue of political propaganda, Russian government trolls used Facebook to spread misinformation during the 2016 election. They used fake accounts and pages to run ads and "game the system," according to Zuckerberg.

Facebook admits that it was slow to pick up on foreign interference in the 2016 US elections. But it's also beginning to take action. Facebook announced last week that it will require buyers of political ads to verify their identity and location, and those who are unable to do so will be prohibited from running political ads on the platform. And it has committed to increased transparency and accountability across electoral and issue ads and pages.

Ideally, the joint hearings will conclude with Facebook having clearly articulated these practical solutions to enhancing privacy safeguards and preventing bad actors from undermining our democracy.

If Facebook succeeds in doing so, it will have shown a good faith effort to identify the cause of recent problems -- and, more importantly, its ability to adequately address them without government assistance.

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