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Facebook’s appearance before Congress is great, but where’s Google?


Recent announcements that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg will appear before both House and Senate committees mark an important development amid the unfolding saga over Facebook’s misuse of user data. Those episodes, and subsequent revelations about how much data Facebook collects – coupled with growing unease regarding pervasive online surveillance – have naturally catalyzed congressional scrutiny. 

An important question, however, remains:  Why isn’t Google testifying too?

{mosads}While Facebook’s face-plant rightly dominates the news, Google’s data practices are perhaps even more troubling.

As reported by NBC, Irish IT consultant Dylan Curran recently unleashed a tweet storm chronicling his horror at the amount and variety of data Google has collected about his online and offline activities, such as “constantly tracking his location in the background, including calculating how long it took to travel between different points, along with his hobbies, interests, possible weight and income, data on his apps and records of files he had deleted. And that’s just for starters.”

All told, Google collected 5.5 GB of information on Curran, or roughly 3 million Word documents. By comparison, Facebook collected 600 MB of data about Curran, or roughly 400,000 Word documents. Accordingly, Google collected 7.5 times more data on Curran than Facebook.

Moreover, both companies’ algorithmically powered ad-targeting engines suffer from the same defects. For example, ProPublica revealed that Facebook allowed advertisers to target “Jew haters.” And during a similar investigation, Google suggested that BuzzFeed target ads to search terms like “black people ruin neighborhoods.” Other examples of ad-targeting that may enable discrimination in job postings or housing listings also keep emerging.

It’s also important to consider the recent Facebook scandal within the broader context of discussions about the internet itself.

The alarming data collection and ad-targeting practices of Google and Facebook join a host of other internet ills, whose common denominator remains their reliance on internet platforms. As just a few examples, those high-profile ills include terrorist propaganda, Russian election interference, misinformation, sex trafficking, counterfeit drugs, or online theft and fraud, but internet platforms constitute the key to their proliferation.

The internet platforms respond that they’re just “neutral pipes,” and should play no role in mitigating illicit content and conduct on their services. But as evidence of harm accumulates, there’s a growing consensus that digital civil society is deteriorating. Even Silicon Valley’s Senate champion, Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), is changing his tune, recently saying “the view that platforms are nothing but neutral pipes for speech isn’t going to fly in this unique time.”

So what can be done?

As a threshold matter, platforms must accept that they play an important role in addressing the harms they enable. To date, their voluntary measures have fallen far short, largely consisting of asking outside groups like Wikipedia or to referee their problems. But non-profit encyclopedias and fact-checkers simply aren’t equipped to solve these problems, particularly those who might possess their own biases and motives. Platforms themselves can and should do far more to address illegal and illicit conduct they facilitate.

The internet has changed the way we communicate, conduct commerce and entertain ourselves. Growing concerns about the ease with which bad actors exploit it, however, undermines consumer confidence and erodes public trust. By eschewing accountability, dominant online platforms contribute to that downward spiral.

A recently leaked internal Facebook memo by VP Andrew Bosworth makes painfully clear the Silicon Valley mindset underlying platforms’ resistance to accountability. In it, Bosworth states, “[w]e connect people … That can be bad if they make it negative. Maybe it costs someone a life by exposing someone to bullies. Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated on our tools. The ugly truth is that we believe in connecting people so deeply that anything that allows us to connect more people more often is *de facto* good.”

No, it isn’t “de facto good,” and Congress should make clear to Facebook, Google and other platforms that accepting responsibility for the harms they enable – and rectifying them – is de facto better.

Tim Lee is the Senior Vice President of Legal and Public Affairs at the Center for Individual Freedom.

Tags Mark Zuckerberg Ron Wyden

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