The key moment in the marathon five-hour hearing that Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive of Facebook Inc., faced before the US Senate’s commerce and judiciary committees on Tuesday was perhaps when senator Dick Durbin asked if he would be comfortable sharing the name of the hotel he stayed in the night before.
“No. I would probably not choose to do that publicly, here," Zuckerberg said. “I think everyone should have control over how their information is used."
But that is exactly the sort of information that has built the $40-billion company. “Yes, we store data... some of that content with people’s permission," Zuckerberg told the committee. “Some"? It’s a clear admission that Facebook also stores data without permission. And doubtless uses that data to serve up the right audiences to advertisers—which is the company’s main revenue model.
As Zuckerberg arrived at Capitol Hill, he looked grim as death. Increasingly uncomfortable questions have been asked of Facebook. How much information does Facebook collect about its users? How much of that is violation of an individual’s privacy? And how safe is all that data in the hands of Facebook?
He looked hounded as he sat down to testify. But there is little public sympathy for him. And he has only himself to blame. In fact, it is astonishing that he had not envisaged that a day would come when his company’s gigantic appetite for gathering data and using it for profit would not face a backlash. Obviously, Zuckerberg knows Spider-Man’s dictum: “With great power comes great responsibility". But he seems to have either not been able to gauge Facebook’s power (unlikely) or cared little about responsibility.
In tech, business will always move faster than regulation. So it is incumbent on businessmen to regulate themselves before something goes wrong and regulators barge in. When that happens, the regulations are likely to be heavy-handed and regressive. But by then, it would be too late.
It is too late. By being cavalier about the implications of its constant prying, Facebook has angered people all over. Regulations will come, and most likely tougher than necessary. Governments will start monitoring flows of information between people more actively. New laws may be enacted. This will not be good. It may curb freedom in the name of protecting the citizen. Looking at Zuckerberg’s bleak face at the hearing, one gets the feeling that he knows that through his recklessness, he has handed governments more insidious power on a platter.