In February, I suggested that Facebook and others would be subjected to a level of attention from government they never wanted or expected. That has happened, with Mark Zuckerberg recently facing two long days of grilling by senators and members of the US House of Representatives. By all accounts, Zuckerberg neither aced it nor made a fool of himself. There were a few too many “my team would have to get back to you on that” answers. A few months ago, the media floated the idea of a future presidential run by Mr. Zuckerberg; his performance could not be described as a propitious start. But more than anything, the hearings revealed the utter lack of preparation of many legislators for delving into a business they clearly did not comprehend.
What all this will mean for Facebook and others is unclear. “Congress is good at two things — doing nothing and overreacting,” said Rep. Billy Long (R-Missouri). “So far, we’ve done nothing on Facebook. We’re getting ready to overreact.” But if forced to guess, I would bet on doing nothing or maybe a token underreaction. The widely noted dysfunctionality of Congress does not augur well for agreeing on much of anything and the executive branch is in the hands of ideological opponents of regulation.
But that’s just the US. Mr. Zuckerberg is also wanted by the British House of Commons. The MPs may or may not be better prepared, but they are not known for gentle questioning. Also, enforcement of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is at hand. In the words of Wikipedia:
The GDPR aims primarily to give control to citizens and residents over their personal data and to simplify the regulatory environment for international business by unifying the regulation within the EU ... It was adopted on 14 April 2016. It becomes enforceable on 25 May 2018, after a two-year transition period.
The major companies, of course including Facebook, are presumably prepared for this and may well choose to implement it in the US and possibly other countries to forestall possibly stricter regulation.
I had also suggested that the exceptionally long honeymoon that technology companies have enjoyed with the general public is threatened. In particular, Google and Facebook offer us extremely useful and enjoyable services for free, making us feel like customers. But we never were real customers; rather, we are their product, a product they sell for extraordinary amounts of money to their real customers — vendors who want to target their advertising at people who have made known their propensity toward, or at least some interest in, buying what they’re selling. The revelation of how information about us was sold to and misused by unscrupulous organizations for unethical and possibly criminal purposes has, for many, shaken their confidence in these companies’ integrity — a loss of innocence. A fraction of users has already closed their Facebook accounts; another fraction has tightened their preferences and reduced their usage. But if past behavior is a guide, the majority will mostly shrug and do little or nothing different. That said, a loss of innocence is never good and virtually impossible to recover from fully.
[For more from the author on this topic, see “Public Policy Coming in from the Sidelines?”]