Mark Zuckerberg disingenuous about privacy instead of explaining Facebook data collection

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What was the most damaging part of Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony to US Congress last week?

Was it the admission that Facebook uses cookies to track its users as they surf all over the web, even when they are logged out? Was it that Facebook even tracks people who aren’t users?

Was it his refusal to name the hotel he stayed in and who he messaged while expecting his 2.2bn users to be okay with such invasions of privacy?

Perhaps, as internet memes have suggested, it was the booster cushion placed on his seat to make him appear taller?

On the first day he testified, Zuckerberg appeared nervous and pale but, as he did on both days, stuck doggedly to his talking points. Only when pushed, which was seldomly on Tuesday but more often in front of a more aggressive bunch of lawmakers on Wednesday, would he make concessions.

When asked by Democrat Ben Lujan on Wednesday about whether Facebook tracks people who haven’t even signed up for the network, Zuckerberg admitted: “In general we collect data on people who are not signed up for Facebook for security purposes”. He couldn’t adequately explain why this was necessary nor how people who hadn’t agreed to Facebook’s terms and conditions could’ve acquiesced to this.

On Tuesday he was pushed by Senator Roger Wicker to admit that Facebook tracks its users even when they’re logged out, equivocating like a politician that “people use cookies on the Internet, and that you can probably correlate activity between sessions. We do that for a number of reasons, including security, and including measuring ads to make sure that the ad experiences are the most effective”.

Zuckerberg made numerous, disingenuous appeals to the founder myth that is so beloved of Silicon Valley. “It’s pretty much impossible to start a company in your dorm room and grow it to the scale we are at now without making some mistakes,” he said. “We didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibility and that was a big mistake. It was a big mistake. And I’m sorry.”

On the apology tour of the past two weeks, he’s frequently made these comments. It’s a sleight of hand that belies the fact that he has run the largest social network in the world, with 2.2bn users, for the past 14 years and has dominating control with 60% of voting rights (even though he only owns about 16% of the stock).

“After more than a decade of promises to do better, how is today’s apology different and why should we trust Facebook to make the necessary changes to ensure user privacy and give people a clearer picture of your privacy policies?” Senator John Thune told him during Tuesday’s hearing.

When he tried to dodge a question, he said his “team” would “follow up” 19 times on Tuesday, and, although he only used the word “team” twice, a further 13 times on Wednesday.

Zuckerberg’s canny trick was to answer that his users have “complete control” of what they post online whenever he was asked about what information Facebook collects about them. He even attempted to deny knowing about the “shadow profiles” Facebook compiles about its users.

Facebook’s share price might have risen 5.7% after his testimony, but he may ultimately have lost the war, especially against regulation.

This article first appeared in Financial Mail

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About Author

Toby Shapshak is editor-in-chief and publisher of Stuff, a Forbes contributor and a Financial Mail columnist. He has been writing about technology and the internet for 20 years and his TED Global talk on innovation in Africa has over 1,5-million views. He has written about Africa's tech and start-up ecosystem for Forbes, CNN and The Guardian in London. He was named in GQ's top 30 men in media and the Mail & Guardian newspaper's influential young South Africans. He has been featured in the New York Times. GQ said he "has become the most high-profile technology journalist in the country" while the M&G wrote: "Toby Shapshak is all things tech... he reigns supreme as the major talking head for everything and anything tech."

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