Two hours into Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook's testimony before the United States Congress this week, he had an exchange with senator John Cornyn, who wanted to know what happens to one's data when they delete their accounts. He responded that the company deletes their data, but then was asked a follow up question.
“How about third parties that you have contracted with to use some of that underlying information, perhaps to target advertising for themselves?” This must have been annoying for Zuckerberg, who spent the whole time in questioning explaining Facebook doesn't sell data to advertisers — doing so would let other companies build ad products that rival his own.
It soon became incredibly clear that many of the people supposed to asking the questions didn't even know what Facebook does. Early in the questions Orrin Hatch asked Zuckerberg why the company doesn't have a subscription model: "How do you sustain a business model in which users don't pay for your service?” The CEO, once again, had to explain that the company makes money by running ads.
Though the hearings could be considered a utter disaster when you take into account he fact that most people asking the questions were ill-informed, unprepared and just stupid. But in the same sense the purpose of the hearings was to provide some clarity of how the company operates, and in the process the value of Facebook rose more than $17 billion.
Facebook stock prices during the testimony
The public had the chance to learn quite a few things about how its data is stored, used and distributed throughout the two days. Many times Zuckerberg found himself stumbling on how to answer questions about how the business — his business that he created himself — collects users data and how it operates in general. Speculation has it that this is because Zuckerberg is much more interested in the engineering and product design than the actual business aspects of, well, running a business.
He was stumped on what data the company collects about people and whether Facebook tracks users across all their devices and offline. In all, he promised to follow up on 43 questions, including how many fake accounts the company has removed, if Messenger collects data from minors for account syncing and if Facebook could "please bring some fiber" to West Virginia, in reference to the ultra-fast fiber internet being slowly rolled out across the country.
We did learn a few things about the company, including how it allows advertisers to target people on a micro-level. For instance, a hotel company could target a 32-year-old Torontonian dad with two children who's going on a business trip to Montreal but doesn't have a hotel room booked yet.
The company recently announced it will stop working with offline data brokers, like credit card companies, which allowed it to target ads based on purchase history and credit scores.
Lawmakers tried to come up with a definition of what Facebook actually is in hopes of better regulating it. Is it a communications service, similar to a telephone? Should it be forced to break up into smaller companies, or is it a media company? Zuckerberg rejected these suggestions, saying it's a technology company that is in the business of writing code.
It came up that the service does in fact track users when they've logged out of their accounts, with Zuckerberg being grilled on this but saying his team will follow up with an answer.
Facebook uses data provided by users to help advertisers target them based on factors like location, interests and age, but users can opt out of this and the advertising company never sees the data about the user.
After all this, Facebook has rolled out an updated interface for people to find and manage settings related to their own personal data. The controls should be easier to understand and find instead of being buried deep in the settings menu.