Mark Zuckerberg is either lying, incompetent, or an inept CEO. What do you think?
As I watched Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony to Congress this week (first to the Senate, then to the House), I was shocked by how many patently false or misleading statements he made. Over the coming days and weeks, I intend to go through them one-by-one and publish them, but given that this topic is all over the headlines this week, I feel it is important to already get some of the obvious lies out there. I feel that we software engineers and machine learning experts who actually understand Facebook’s technology have a duty to spread the word that Mark is either lying or he doesn’t actually know what Facebook does.
While I would have wished the US Congress was better prepared to question Zuckerberg, I don’t completely fault Congress for having the wool pulled over their eyes. If they do their job though, they should be hearing testimony from impartial expert witnesses, who can testify that Zuckerberg made many false and misleading statements. I hope they do this soon because American consumers deserve to know the truth.
To cut to the chase, here is a quick list to get started with unveiling the truth about Facebook. All timestamps given are from the official archive videos provided by C-SPAN and linked above.
1. Facebook does track users across the Internet, even when they are logged out of Facebook, and this tracking is not just for security. It is “transactional.”
Here is one of many examples of Zuckerberg’s attempts to duck-and-hide from questions about Facebook’s Internet tracking practices (see 1:06:11 Senate testimony).
“There have been reports that Facebook can track users’ browsing activity even after that user has logged off of the Facebook platform. Can you confirm whether or not this is true?”
Um, Senator, I want to make sure this is accurate, so it would probably be better to have my team follow up afterwards.
So you don’t know?
Zuckerberg was faced with such questions about off-Facebook tracking several times, and he mostly tried to dodge these questions. This topic should have been easy for someone like Zuckerberg to explain, but clearly he did not want to be upfront with Congress and the American people. Facebook definitely deploys cookies and “pixel” technology across the web (thanks to its third-party developer tools), and the purpose of such technologies is to track purchases and provide metrics to advertisers on what Facebook users are doing, even when they are logged out of Facebook. One just has to glance at Facebook’s business website to understand this. Zuckerberg should have been able to answer these questions.
2. It is not hard to pro-actively remove illegal prescription drug ads like the ones presented to him during the hearing. It doesn’t even require AI.
Zuckerberg said: “What we need to do is build more AI tools that can pro-actively find that content” (2:19:33 of House hearing). He was defending Facebook’s inability to take down prescription drug ads and posts from Facebook, but this statement was at the least misleading. It doesn’t require AI or anything sophisticated to automatically remove the bulk of these ads. A few if-else statements would remove most of them and would provide at least a temporary solution. Just look at the below example and think how quickly you could write a script to remove such content.
3. Facebook does actually give user data to advertisers
Zuckerberg repeatedly made statements such as, “Mr. Chairman, you’re right that we don’t sell any data” (0:19:40 of House hearing). I take great exception to this because even if there is not a direct transaction with advertisers of user data for money, there is certainly an indirect transaction that in effect provides the advertisers with user data. Anyone who has run an ad on Facebook understands this. Facebook data allow advertisers to track how individual users interact with their ads, and due to the highly targeted nature of these ads, these interactions reveal a wealth of data about Facebook users.
Even apart from these details of how Facebook targeted advertising works, Zuckerberg said at one point that Facebook doesn’t give user data to advertisers. This is patently false. You can verify this by using the “Download a copy of your Facebook data” feature. There is a section in the Facebook data archive for “Ads” where you can see a list of advertisers who have your contact information. I did this a few weeks ago, and the below picture shows how it looked. I have intentionally kept this list somewhat illegible because the list itself reveals quite a lot of personal data. The main point is, it is a long list, and it proves Mark is either grossly misinformed about what Facebook does or is actually lying before Congress.
4. Facebook doesn’t delete your content when you ask them to.
Many times during his testimony, Zuckerberg said that Facebook users “own their data” and can delete it when they want to (e.g. “They can delete that data any time they want.” at 2:05:33 of Senate hearing and “You can take it down if you want.” at 2:07:15 of Senate hearing), but this is demonstrably false. I am including below a redacted screenshot from privacy advocate, Max Schrems, that illustrates this, but anyone with a Facebook account can verify that this is the case by deleting some piece of content and then using the “Download a copy of your Facebook data” feature to see that the content was not actually deleted.
What can we do about it?
For those who are US citizens, I ask you to consider for a moment the gravity of the fact that the CEO of one of the world’s most powerful companies is outright lying to the Congress. I urge you to contact your representatives and demand that they hold Mr. Zuckerberg to account. Congress clearly needs our help to understand some of the technical details of Facebook. It was obvious from some of the exchanges during the Zuckerberg hearing that many members of Congress have no idea how Facebook works. Let’s not allow Zuckerberg to pull the wool over Congress’s eyes, which are in many ways the eyes of the American people.
If you are not a US citizen, please help spread this article (or your own version of it) across the Internet. Urge your friends to reconsider using a service run by a person who clearly is willing to lie to preserve his wealth and power. Any further attention we can bring to this issue will keep it in the headlines, which will pressure governments to act.
Lastly, consider supporting Pondenome, an initiative I started recently to offer the world a privacy-by-design alternative to Facebook.