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Washington, Facebook, and the Privacy Reckoning

For about as long as social media networks have existed, security and privacy professionals have been warning users about the issues these services present. Many of the things that have concerned experts have gone on below the surface, but the Cambridge Analytica story and others have brought those problems into the open in a way that’s not only new but could lead to the one thing these services fear most: government regulation.

One of the things that people find attractive about services such as Facebook and Twitter is the idea that these are open platforms that people can use as they see fit and on which they are free to express themselves. Freedom of expression is at the heart of how America (and other democracies) is supposed to operate, and users see social media networks as the most democratic and efficient method of expressing themselves.

Whether that was ever true is debatable, but it certainly isn’t now. Those platforms are closely monitored and the content on them is tightly controlled, and for good reason. Hate speech and other kinds of abusive content have been serious problems on social media sites for many years, and Facebook and Twitter and Google have had to find ways to detect and remove that content at massive scale. That’s tremendously important work, and while it’s not implicitly security related, it’s a big part of what constitutes user safety and privacy on those platforms. And for many users, that is security.

The safety and security teams at the social networking companies know all of this, which is why they’ve been working on various methods to protect the safety and privacy of their users. If users don’t feel safe or secure, they’ll evacuate the premises with a quickness, which tends to be bad for the business. Government intervention can also put a damper on things, especially when legislators begin talking about how to develop “rules of the road” for user privacy. That sure sounds a lot like a precursor to regulation.

The Senate is pretty interested in this concept, as evidence by the Judiciary Committee’s open hearing on it on April 10, a hearing to which Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Google CEO Sundar Pichai, and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey all have been invited. This is not a new line of inquiry for the federal government, though. Washington has been sniffing around the privacy practices of these companies for years, and in the case of Facebook, there have been some serious consequences. The Federal Trade Commission in 2011 reached a settlement with Facebook over privacy violations, and this week the commission said that it has opened a new investigation into the company’s handling of consumer data in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica situation.

The fact that Congress is taking an interest in this topic should be a clear indication that both the legislative and regulatory portions of the federal government are getting impatient.

“Accordingly, the FTC takes very seriously recent press reports raising substantial concerns about the privacy practices of Facebook. Today, the FTC is confirming that it has an open non-public investigation into these practices,” Tom Pahl, acting director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said.

After the news about Facebook’s role in the Cambridge Analytica story broke earlier this month, consumers, legislators, and activists demanded to know what Facebook officials knew about the company’s use of customer data and what would change going forward. Zuckerberg, in an interview on CNN, said that regulation may in fact be part of the answer.

“I actually am not sure we shouldn't be regulated. I think in general technology is an increasingly important trend in the world and I actually think the question is more, what is the right regulation rather than ‘Yes or no, should it be regulated?’,” he said.

Zuckerberg doesn’t get to make that decision, nor does Pichai or Dorsey. That responsibility lies with the federal agencies that oversee these companies’ activities. And while those agencies don’t always see eye-to-eye with the folks on Capitol Hill, the fact that Congress is taking an interest in this topic should be a clear indication that both the legislative and regulatory portions of the federal government are getting impatient.

The security and privacy concerns that experts have had with social networks still hold, but as more and more of these incidents arise, users hopefully become more aware of what they're signing up for. The people running these networks certainly are aware of the problems and challenges they face, and now that Washington is peeking under the covers, change may be on the horizon.