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Zuckerberg under the spotlight over privacy - will anything change this time?


The latest challenge to Facebook's privacy practices was revealed last week, with news of a lawsuit alleging that its Instagram platform has been collecting biometric data without users' consent.

The case follows another similar lawsuit last month, with the company accused of collecting biometric data through a photo-tagging tool on Facebook itself; the company has offered to pay $650 million to settle.

But these are just the latest in a series of privacy scandals that have beset Facebook for years. And increasingly, governments are starting to intervene.

In the EU, a long-running case brought by privacy campaigner Max Schrems recently resulted in a ruling that the UK-US Privacy Shield data-sharing agreement was invalid; Schrems had argued that US government access to Facebook data meant that Facebook was not compliant with EU privacy laws. 

Meanwhile, in the US, Facebook - along with other tech giants Amazon, Apple, and Google - has been put on the spot by Congress for both anti-competitive behavior and the privacy issues surrounding their commercial data collection.

Zuckerberg claims ignorance

CEO Mark Zuckerberg was asked about the company's use of an app called Onavo Protect, which monitors user devices and, it's claimed, allowed Facebook to monitor competitors and track consumers without explicit permission from users. 

Representative Johnson's Question Line to Mark Zuckerberg During Antitrust Hearing video screenshot

Questioned by Rep. Hank Johnson, Zuckerberg was evasive:

Johnson: "When it became public that Facebook was using Onavo to conduct digital surveillance, your company got kicked out of Apple’s App store, isn’t that true?"

Zuckerberg: "Congressman, I’m not sure I’d characterize it in that way."

Johnson: "I mean, Onavo did get kicked out of the App Store, isn’t that true?"

Zuckerberg: "Congressman, we took the app out after Apple changed their policies on VPN apps."

Johnson: "And it was because of the use of the surveillance tools."

Zuckerberg: "Congressman, I’m not sure the policy was worded that way or that it’s exactly the right characterization of it."

Frequently, Zuckerberg claimed not to know the answer to basic questions that were clearly answered on the company's own website: whether Facebook can track a user’s internet browsing activity, even after the user's logged off, for example (it can), or whether it can track users across devices (again, it can).

When asked about the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and whether the company considered informing affecting users that their data had been harvested without their consent, he said he couldn't remember.

It's a strategy that will be familiar to anyone that's ever had a four-year-old child; but until now, it's worked pretty well.

Facebook's responded to privacy scandal after privacy scandal by declaring, first, its ignorance of any problems; next, its extreme sadness at the revelation; and finally by setting up some sort of new initiative (altered algorithms, a privacy oversight board) that - on the surface - appears to address the problem.

The House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee is set to publish its report in the next few weeks. However, it remains to be seen whether it will be any more hard-hitting than all the other inquisitions the company has faced. 

Momentum towards a breakup of the company appears to have faltered since Elizabeth Warren, one of the idea's leading proponents, dropped out of the presidential race in March.

Perhaps more likely will be a move towards some sort of general privacy protections similar to the EU's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) - something that Zuckerberg has actually advocated. Not only does this stance make for good PR, but it could also actually benefit Facebook by freezing out smaller competitors. Ultimately, very little would change.

Meanwhile, Zuckerberg appears set to continue with his current strategy as long as he possibly can.

As Rep. Johnson put it at the hearing: 

"You tried one thing and then you got caught, made some apologies, then you did it all over again."

  • See more key moments from the Big Four antitrust hearing below:
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