Last week was Mark Zuckerberg’s big debut before multiple congressional panels, all of which had the very ambitious goal of uncovering all of Facebook’s evils.
Lawmakers from both parties expressed their grievances with the social media giant. Democrats cried foul because the internet giant was allegedly complicit in a conspiracy that duped you ignorant ill-informed masses into voting for Donald Trump in the November 2016 presidential election. Republicans expressed outrage that Facebook, a private company, is not friendlier to a conservative ideology with its algorithms.
Both sides at least have claimed to be concerned about the public’s privacy and the potential for personal data misuse. They also worry Facebook is a monopolistic company with the market cornered on a social media platform that allows you to obnoxiously share photographs of children, your insane political beliefs or any other in-depth personal info you deem relevant.
As these things usually go, Congress so far has not actually taken substantive action in response to the hearings.
Were we to expect that Congress would pass a new law regulating Facebook or fast-track some punitive measure punishing it for past indiscretions? Was Congress supposed to scrap regulatory solutions and nationalize Facebook, deeming it a public utility? Or how about some restriction that someone might challenge as a violation of the First Amendment?
The way Congress operates these days, which is as a body that can barely keep the federal government running, it is hard to see 535 elected members agreeing about what to do with the Facebook problem — or even if there is a problem.
The real impetus for the grandstanding America witnessed last week has nothing to do with any of their stated concerns. Are we to believe that these U.S. Senators, who serve in a body where the average age is 62, are troubled by technology many of them do not use or understand?
Last summer, Zuckerberg spent time in Iowa. Why would anyone spend time in Iowa? Because it is an early presidential primary state.
Some speculated at the time that Zuckerberg was testing the waters for his own presidential run. In this age of Trump, a prevailing notion is that anyone with a little bit of celebrity could be a legitimate contender for the White House.
If that is the case, then why not a tech whiz who spent some time at Harvard?
Suppose it is true — that Zuckerberg has his eyes on a run for office. Right out of the starting block, he already has an advantage over his opponents. He has personal data for almost everyone in the U.S. — likely voter, registered voter, the person who couldn’t care less about voting or politics. It’s an endless amount of data other political candidates would not necessarily be able to obtain.
And that is likely why Zuckerberg is suddenly a concern for Congress. It is not that Facebook poses a threat to American society. Instead, it threatens the entrenched status quo. In the eyes of some, Facebook is a threat to how the business of politics operates. Candidates raise millions of dollars and spend those millions of dollars, some of it on data, some of it to compile that data. All of it goes to somebody’s bank account somewhere.
That need is suddenly obsolete if Zuckerberg harnessed the full power of Facebook to aid him in a presidential bid. And what if Zuckerberg wanted to take it a step further and use Facebook to help elect allies in the U.S. Congress?
Now you see why members of Congress and their allies might be afraid of Zuckerberg’s Facebook.
So what was the point of last week’s hearings, if Congress is indeed an ineffectual body that never intended to pass any new laws to inhibit Facebook?
One of the things people kept a close eye on during these hearings was Facebook’s stock price. Since its IPO in May 2012, Facebook’s NASDAQ-traded stock has gone up 400 percent. Zuckerberg’s personal net worth is among the top five in the world.
What if Congress had come out swinging? What if any sizable group of these 100 U.S. Senators started threatening Facebook? Zuckerberg’s net worth might have taken a hit, and that could be what dissuades him from entering the political arena and using the tools afforded him through ownership of Facebook as a political weapon.
If that was the plan, it backfired. Zuckerberg’s net worth, which is tied to Facebook’s stock price, increased by $4 billion during his testimony before Congress.
However, dragging Zuckerberg back to testify before a pointless, seemingly endless congressional hearing sent the message. Those in Congress may not have the numbers to pass laws, but they can undoubtedly saber-rattle about doing so and be enough of a nuisance for Zuckerberg, who still has a company to run. We also can’t assume Zuckerberg is always going to exceed expectations when he appears in these types of settings. In this round of testimony, the bar was pretty low.
The perpetual professional wrestling match that is known as Washington, D.C., may show concern about certain aspects of Facebook’s business model.
Monopoly, privacy, freedom of speech — all of these are valid concerns when it comes to Facebook. What is important to remember is that ultimately Facebook is a private business. It’s not compulsory. If you have internet access, it is free to the individual. It may have a larger-than-ideal share of the advertising market, but that didn’t seem to be the biggest concern on Capitol Hill last week.
As far as the public is concerned, all of these things surrounding Facebook are not the day’s most pressing issues. Some people are struggling economically and are probably unconcerned about not having an alternative to Facebook that would allow them to check up on an old acquaintance.
The question Congress wants Zuckerberg to ask himself is, do you really want to interfere with the pretty good thing you’ve got going that makes a lot of money off facilitating social connectivity? Or do you want to run for office and have to deal with all the problems our body of lawmakers can impose on that good thing?
Let’s not fool ourselves. Facebook may have its flaws, but Congress is not pure and wholesome with its overtures to investigate these flaws.
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