Top Dem on Antitrust Subcommittee Calls on Zuckerberg to Testify

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

WASHINGTON – U.S. Congressman David N. Cicilline (RI-01), who serves as Ranking Member of the House Judiciary Committee’s Antitrust Subcommittee, is calling for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to testify as part of a full Committee hearing on his company’s unauthorized sharing of 50 million Americans’ personal data with Cambridge Analytica.

The full text of Cicilline’s letter to House Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte is embedded below. A PDF copy of the letter, as delivered, can be downloaded by clicking here.

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March 20, 2018

The Honorable Robert W. Goodlatte

Chairman

Committee on the Judiciary

U.S. House of Representatives

2309 Rayburn House Office Building

Washington, D.C. 20515

Chairman Goodlatte:

I write to express my significant concerns regarding the reported unauthorized sharing of 50 million Americans’ personal data by Facebook. The Judiciary Committee needs to convene a hearing on this matter as soon as possible.

On Saturday, The New York Times and The Observer reported that Cambridge Analytica, a political data firm, harvested the personal information—including location, political views, religious beliefs, and online activities—of at least 50 million Americans on Facebook “to exploit what [it] knew about them and target their inner demons” and “fight a culture war in America.” Cambridge Analytica obtained this data in 2014 through a researcher who “paid users small sums to take a personality quiz and download an app, which would scrape some private information from their profiles and from those of their friends—activity that Facebook permitted at the time.” Far less than 1% of people whose data was used by Cambridge Analytica—about 270,000 people—ostensibly consented to the use of their data by a third party or were aware of its use.

In advance of this shocking report, Facebook reportedly downplayed the scope of the incident to reporters, and even threatened to file a lawsuit to prevent the report’s publication. In the two years since Facebook became aware of this incident, it took no steps to inform people affected by the breach, disclose the incident to the appropriate state and federal enforcement authorities, or ensure that this data was actually deleted or minimized.  Instead, Facebook now insists that “everyone involved gave their consent” and “knowingly provided their information,” while making Orwellian claims that “[p]rotecting people’s information is at the heart of everything we do, and we require the same from people who operate apps on Facebook.”

This incident is only Facebook’s latest abuse of public trust and attempt to obscure its role in the rise of information warfare and propaganda online. In November 2016, Facebook Chief Executive Officer, Mark Zuckerberg, said it was “pretty crazy” to suggest that misinformation online affected the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Since then, it has prevented security researchers from analyzing the extent of misinformation and propaganda on Facebook, and attempted to elude congressional oversight of this matter. As Jonathan Albright, the Research Director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, has noted, this most recent incident is more about a “lack of rules, transparency, oversight, regulations, platform accountability than [Cambridge Analytica]. Unethical people will always do bad things when we make it easy for them and there are few—if any—lasting repercussions.”

Beyond the serious implications of this breach on public trust and the integrity of our democracy, this event may also have violated Facebook’s consent decree with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). In 2011, the Commission charged Facebook with deceiving consumers, thereby violating federal law, by “telling them they could keep their information on Facebook private, and then repeatedly allowing it to be shared and made public.” As the Commission noted, this included representations that “third-party apps that users’ installed would have access only to user information that they needed to operate,” along with other deceptive claims regarding limitations on sharing data with third-party applications.

Under the consent decree, Facebook is barred from misrepresenting the privacy and disclosure of consumers’ personal information. Jessica Rich, the former Director of the Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, recently stated that Facebook’s reported conduct “bespeaks the same recklessness with its users’ data that prompted the FTC to take action in 2011,” noting that Facebook’s consent decree requires that it report unauthorized access to the FTC and obtain affirmative consent from consumers before sharing their data with third parties. David Vladeck, the former Director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection who oversaw this investigation, has similarly stated that there are “serious questions about [Facebook’s] compliance with the FTC consent decree.” A hearing on this matter would be well-within the House Judiciary Committee’s longstanding interest in ensuring that consent decrees effectively deter unlawful conduct. As the Committee concluded in 1959, the ineffective use of consent decrees “amounts to an invitation to corporate officers to undertake programs that may violate the law.”

This breach of Americans’ trust also appears to be an outgrowth of Facebook’s dominance online. Two-thirds of Americans have Facebook accounts, and three-quarters visit the site daily. It controls roughly one-fifth of the digital advertising market, which is highly concentrated, while more than half of Americans access news through Facebook and its subsidiaries, Instagram and WhatsApp. As the Open Markets Institute has noted, “Facebook’s role as a critical gatekeeper gives the corporation the ability to regulate communications across vast swaths of American society, and to serve as a self-appointed censor of the content of a large and growing portion of online communications. At the same time, recent events reveal that Facebook has become too big and complex for any executive team to manage responsibly, and has provided a back-door through which America’s enemies can attack our vital social and democratic institutions.” As I have previously noted, the Committee should have an active role in examining these issues involving platform dominance to ensure that the antitrust laws are working effectively.

The lack of congressional oversight into how this unprecedented control of Americans’ data and access to information online also directly relates to incidents like the Cambridge Analytica unauthorized disclosure. As Zeynep Tufecki, an associate professor at the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina, recently noted, “A business model based on vast data surveillance and charging clients to opaquely target users based on this kind of extensive profiling will inevitably be misused. The real problem is that billions of dollars are being made at the expense of the health of our public sphere and our politics, and crucial decisions are being made unilaterally, and without recourse or accountability.”

Accordingly, it is imperative that the Chief Executive Officer of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, appear before the Committee to provide us with an opportunity to examine this issue publicly. I appreciate your consideration of this request and I look forward to working with you on this matter.

Sincerely,

David N. Cicilline

Ranking Member

Subcommittee on Regulatory Reform,

Commercial and Antitrust Law

Committee on the Judiciary

cc:          The Honorable Jerrold Nadler, Ranking Member, Committee on the Judiciary

 

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