After three decades of largely leaving Silicon Valley alone, Congress is taking a hard look.
California’s Rep. Adam Schiff worries the Facebook you see is different from the one he sees.
It’s a feature, not a bug, that Facebook’s computer programs use what they know about you to organize posts, news stories and photos just so. That’s to ensure you’ll spend lots of time on its app or website and then come back for more the next day.
But for Schiff, a ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence that investigated Russian meddling in US elections, this key issue is the one thing he wishes he could have discussed this week.
Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s co-founder and CEO, traveled to Capitol Hill to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senate Commerce Committee, and the House Energy and Commerce Committee in marathon sessions that stretched to more than 10 hours over two days, not including private meetings. Schiff isn’t on either committee, but he watched the proceedings closely.
During the hearings, Zuckerberg came to apologize for having lost control of up to 87 million Facebook users’ private data, which was downloaded by an app developer and then reportedly sold to UK-based political data analysis company Cambridge Analytica. The scandal brought long-simmering concerns over trust and potential data mismanagement to the fore as Facebook attempted to respond to the scandal.
The monthlong drama culminated with Zuckerberg’s hearings in Washington, where he ditched his typical gray T-shirt, jeans and sneakers for a dark blue suit and light blue tie.
The spectacle of the hearings was carried across television news for hours. What stood out, aside from Zuckerberg’s own initial discomfort with the hearings, was some lawmakers’ lack of knowledge about even the basic ways tech companies work.
Regardless of the struggles, Schiff said Congress realizes it needs to learn more in order to properly consider any rules for the industry.
California Rep. Adam Schiff is concerned about how algorithms determine what we see on the web.
“These hearings this week have been with the CEO, but of only one company, and predominantly focused on privacy issues,” he said. There are other issues he wants to discuss when it comes to tech.
One is the feedback loop that leads people to read and share certain types of posts, such as political stories from highly partisan sources, that then Facebook serves up to you more and more, which you share even further.
“If the hope is that these platforms can be a force for good and bring people together — but the way this business model is operating is having an effect of dividing us — then that’s something we need to think about,” he said. “The questions is, what obligation do the social media companies think they should take on?”
Here are edited excerpts from CNET’s conversation with the congressman shortly after Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony this week.
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Silicon Valley has worked for decades without regulation. Is it time for things to change?
Schiff: I think it is. And interestingly, before this I would hear from people in Silicon Valley who would say, “There’s a sense that we’re completely against the regulation, but we’re not. We actually think some regulation may be helpful.” I think there’s certainly a strong case to be made for regulation of some kind.
We, I think, have only begun to do our oversight. And it’s probably very early still to be prescribing our regulation before we understand exactly how these platforms