Federal politicians are showing Americans what little they understand about social media.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg this week participated in two days of testimony before U.S. House and Senate panels. The company faces mounting concerns over the use of user data by Facebook and outside groups, including allegations of foreign influence in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Americans watched on Tuesday and Wednesday as the very same people who want to regulate social media asked questions which demonstrated fundamental misconceptions about online platforms and their business models.
Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa, is one example.
“Is it possible for Facebook to exist without collecting and selling our data?” Loebsack asked Zuckerberg during a House committee hearing on Wednesday.
The short answer is no, at least not in its current form. As Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg explained in a recent NBC interview, “our service depends on your data.”
To clarify, Facebook does not sell people’s data, as Loebsack suggested. Instead, it uses that information internally to target advertisers’ messages within Facebook and its offshoot platforms. That’s how the company pays some 25,000 employees who keep its services running.
Fortunately, another Iowa politician had a much stronger grasp on how social media works. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa — the chamber’s second-oldest member at 84 years and seven months — correctly explained Facebook is funded through advertising, based on user data.
“It is no secret that Facebook makes money off this data through advertising revenue, although many seem confused by or altogether unaware of this fact. … As we get more free or extremely low cost services, the trade-off for the American consumer is to provide more personal data,” Grassley said during his opening remarks at Tuesday’s Senate hearing.
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Grassley, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee before which Zuckerberg spoke, gets at an important truth about online services: If you don’t pay for it, you’re not a customer. Rather, your eyes and ears are the products, while advertisers are the customer.
There are legitimate arguments about whether that’s a wise business model, and Americans are having important conversations about whether they want to opt in to such services.
However, it’s nonsensical to suggest a free service as large as Facebook could exist without capitalizing on targeted advertising.
“In order to not run ads at all, we would still need some sort of business model. … We want to offer a free service that everyone can afford. That’s the only way we can reach billions of people,” Zuckerberg said Tuesday in response to questions from Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida.
Nearly all the politicians questioning Zuckerberg suggested they want to further regulate internet services, though they disagree on the focus and extent.
Let’s hope they will listen to Grassley, the octogenarian who gets it better than most.
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