Policy

‘It’s clear to me you don’t want to answer that’: Facebook hearing turns into another shouting match

Lawmakers were supposed to wade into questions about Big Data's effect on competition. Instead, their vitriol at Facebook was unending.

The Instagram logo on a dark background
Image: Alexander Shatov/Unsplash

In the wake of last week's damning series of reports about Facebook, senators at a hearing that was initially supposed to be about competition instead unleashed their ire on the firm, comparing it to Big Tobacco, suggesting it lied to Congress and all but accusing the social network of profiting off teens' anxiety and suicidal thoughts.

The bipartisan parade of fury on a politically salient issue lasted hours on Tuesday. Senators focused particularly on a Wall Street Journal report about the company's careful research into the corrosive effect of Instagram on young users' mental health. But the show, coming during a hearing that was supposed to examine the impact of Big Data on competition, was also the latest evidence that Congress' periodic fits of anger at tech companies and the way Facebook obsessively deflects can create a loop that gets in the way of what Washington actually wants to do.

It wasn't hard to understand why lawmakers were at times frustrated with the Facebook witness, Steve Satterfield, a company vice president of privacy and public policy. Facebook had seriously downplayed its research into social media's effect on teens to some of the very senators in the room, according to the Journal report. Satterfield repeatedly pleaded his ignorance of the all-but-unavoidable mental health questions and tried to pivot back to the subject of the hearing, even though he'd begun by offering just one or two sentences about that topic.

"That's not really an answer, though, man," Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who led the hearing as chair of the subcommittee on antitrust, said at one point. Satterfield had just told her that measuring ad revenue per user had "a lot of factors" — and then just stopped talking.

"The simple fact of the matter is that Facebook has known for years that Instagram is directly involved in an increase in eating disorders, mental health issues and suicidal thoughts, especially for teenage girls," said Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal, to whom the company had previously downplayed research, in what counted as a restrained exchange.

Satterfield also resisted conceding even basic facts about Facebook's business model and failed to promise Facebook would actually show up to an upcoming Sept. 30 hearing that will focus on young users.

In the end, Satterfield's performance — and the way lawmakers trained their fire on him to the exclusion of a representative from Google and a former official from data broker Acxiom — also highlighted just how many questions went largely unaddressed about data and competition.

Although data regulation and antitrust enforcement are traditionally separate aspects of tech policy, practitioners in both areas have come up with a rich set of potential overlaps for lawmakers. They've debated if social media monopolies degrade privacy, whether online services can protect users' privacy without unduly boxing out rivals, whether vast troves of consumer information should play a larger role in merger analysis, if digital platforms that have gatekeeper power use commercial data to exclude rivals and how much of an advantage huge troves of information really provide given that multiple companies can possess the same piece of data.

What to do about all of this is an important and unanswered question, particularly at a time when many of lawmakers' suggested fixes would still leave a lot of public concerns unaddressed. But those critical issues got far less attention in the hearing.

Lawmakers did occasionally get at the data and competition issues, especially Klobuchar and Sen. Mike Lee, the top Republican on the panel. Klobuchar spoke, for instance, about interoperability, which lets users move their data between services and theoretically could boost new competitors by handing them the information dominant companies already possess. She discussed how mobile app store operators compete against rivals and whether users really know the extent of information they're sharing with Google and Facebook. She also teased that she's working on "anti-discrimination bills for exclusionary conduct," which could have some overlap with a House bill, as well as other fixes, potentially for a range of industries.

"Once you get so big and have so much dominance … there are these barriers to entry that make it impossible to allow competition," she said.

Early in the hearing, Lee pointed out that Facebook derives profit from ads powered by the data it collects on users, and asked if lack of transparency into the exchange might be a sign of anticompetitive conduct, particularly in light of the company's shifting product offerings.

Yet Satterfield's answer, in which he tried to reject the premise, showed how difficult the Facebook witness made efforts to get answers even when lawmakers focused on the hearing's main topic.

"We don't see data as something that people give us in exchange for providing our services," Satterfield said. "We see data as something that we use to provide the service to them, to provide value to them."

Of course, Mark Zuckerberg long ago testified succinctly before Congress about the company's business model: "We run ads." But when Satterfield continued to try to frame Facebook's use of data as just a way to enable a social experience, Lee appeared to grow fed up.

"It's clear to me you don't want to answer that, whatever," Lee, who normally keeps his questions to the technical details of policy, said. "I was throwing you a bone there to try to allow you to engage in a dialogue."

Stymied, Lee then pivoted to the Journal reports and made the first of several raised-voice comparisons between Facebook and Big Tobacco. Most of the senators who came after likewise seemed to prefer following that line of inquiry.

Republican Sen. Josh Hawley urged Facebook to finally abandon its much-maligned plans for an Instagram Kids app. He also sought the company research behind the Journal reports, including its conclusion that almost a third of teen girls said Instagram exacerbated their negative feelings about their bodies and 13% of British users reporting suicidal thoughts "traced the desire to kill themselves to Instagram."

"You won't release the research because this is a cash cow for you," Hawley said after Satterfield inevitably declined to produce the studies and protested lawmakers' characterizations. "You won't answer our questions because you make a gob of money on this."

Satterfield tried to cite Instagram reforms like "changes that are designed to address potential bullying and harassment in comments," to say that Facebook was committed to billions in investments to improve safety and security, and to suggest that the media reports might be lacking in context. It did little to mollify lawmakers.

Sen. Marsha Blackburn asked about Facebook's compliance with children's privacy laws and gestured to another Journal report on the company, asking whether Facebook would "stop allowing human traffickers, sex traffickers and drug traffickers to use your platform."

Few who have watched Congress come down on Facebook in the past could have been shocked by the questioning, but Satterfield complained that the discussion had inevitably strayed from the focus of his preparation and role. In response, Sen. Ted Cruz bellowed: "Putting in place policies that result in more teen suicides, that does not fall within your purview?"

Cruz later asked if Facebook had "quantified how many additional teenagers took their" lives because of Facebook products.

"Senator, again, with respect," Satterfield said, "these aren't the issues that I work on. I came here today to talk about data and antitrust."

At the end, Klobuchar assured the witnesses that she and her colleagues weren't giving up on Big Data and competition.

"You're not going to find a more interested and energized subcommittee than this," she said, stifling a chuckle. Then she added: "As you can see from today."

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