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View from Washington: In defence of Facebook - Zuckerberg finally speaks out

The CEO’s tardy response to the Cambridge Analytica scandal should avert an existential crisis at Facebook… but only for now.

Facebook’s beleaguered CEO Mark Zuckerberg finally responded to the Cambridge Analytica (CA) scandal on Wednesday (March 21), via a post on the site and interviews with CNN, Wired, Recode and The New York Times. The reviews have been mixed, though Zuckerberg probably has bought his company some time to retrench and start sorting out its Augean mess.

Reading all the articles and the blog, frequently repeated phrases and observations show that Zuckerberg was speaking to tightly defined and obviously lawyered talking points. With his company already facing two class-action lawsuits over the CA issue, that was probably unavoidable.

The CEO nevertheless said a number of the things his users have been waiting to hear.

He acknowledged that Facebook had been lax in its response to the CA hack after being alerted by The Guardian in 2015. He admitted that while Facebook feels it was deceived by CA and researcher Aleksandr Kogan, its subsequent meagre response constituted a “breach of trust” by the company towards its users. And he said, “I am sorry” in a way that felt genuine rather than an act of self-pity.

Zuckerberg then outlined, in broad terms, the latest Facebook fix. Three main elements of the programme, with more to follow, are:

  • a further tightening of the datasets shared with developers and researchers;
  • an internal audit into what data mining and sharing took place not just via Dr Kogan’s app but all those that received “friends-also” data before an earlier tightening of access; and
  • the launch of a prominently displayed tool that lets users see which externally-developed Facebook apps access their data and gives them greater control over what those apps harvest.

Users caught in the CA trawl will be informed, and Zuckerberg acknowledged that Facebook expects attempts at political chicanery over its platform during the 2018 US midterm elections as well as votes elsewhere. The company will therefore, he said, step up efforts to catch bad actors.

So far, so good. It’s a decent enough action plan. Though you do wonder why Facebook spent so many days coming up with it: the basics are commonsense. But while one expects the CEO’s contrition and these commitments will satisfy many concerned Facebook users, were you to grade Zuck’s media blitz, it would only score in C-borderline-C+ territory. A pass, but one that leaves important questions unanswered.

For a start, there is already a huge obstacle facing Zuckerberg’s internal audit proposal because, in such form, it will see Facebook mark its own homework. That so much is unacceptable to the UK’s Information Commissioner became clear when she basically kicked the company’s internal investigators out of CA’s London offices earlier this week, while she herself seeks a warrant. Time will tell whether US regulators will be equally dismissive, but it would hardly be a surprise.

Then, there are the questions still swirling around Facebook’s senior management, including Zuckerberg himself.

Reports of tensions between security chief Alex Stamos (who is claimed to have long argued the company was doing nowhere near enough about data security) and the senior duo of Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg are not addressed in any of the interviews. For investors, these remain a serious concern.

Meanwhile, many observers remain sceptical because while Zuckerberg’s plan is generally viable, Facebook’s responses to other recent challenges follow a pattern that suggests its execution will fall short. The company has tumbled into a cycle of grudgingly acknowledging issues (e.g., Zuckerberg originally dismissed political hacking as “crazy”), promising fixes but then discovering that its problems are greater and more intractable than originally believed. There has been too much over-promising and under-delivering in the last 18 months.

Finally, one had to note the naivety of Zuckerberg’s response to increasingly angry demands from US and UK polticians for him to face them in committee.

By now, he should have realised that a simple “Yes” would not merely suffice but was necessary. Instead, when asked, “Will you testify before Congress?” by CNN’s Laurie Segall, Zuckerberg spouted 180 words of confused and confusing waffle. MPs and Senators will have loved that.

Nevertheless, Facebook has worked itself a little breathing room. But it really is just ‘a little’.

Wall Street has put the company on notice by slashing its stock price, as have many thousands of its users. Data sharing has become a news story in a much broader sense, with more revelations expected – not all necessarily related to CA. Senior politicians feel tempted to impose ever tougher regulation on social media. And across all that context, Facebook has the biggest target on its back.

So, good to hear from you at last, Mark. No doubt, we'll talk again soon.

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