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Rep. Mike Doyle Proposes Oversight Agency For Facebook During Zuckerberg Hearing

Andrew Harnik
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify before a House Energy and Commerce hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, April 11, 2018.

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg faced his second congressional hearing of the week Wednesday, and Pennsylvania Rep. Mike Doyle of the 14th District is one of many members of Congress to question him on the privacy of Facebook's users. He also proposed a government oversight agency to regulate Facebook and its competitors.

The social media company has faced scrutiny since March, when multiple news organizations reported that British political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica obtained data from 87 million Facebook profiles and used it for targeted advertising in the 2016 presidential campaign of Donald Trump. 

Zuckerberg testified Tuesday for more than five hours of questioning from a joint session of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary and the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. On Wednesday, he did the same before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. Mike Doyle is a member of that subcommittee, and he was one of six members to sign a letter in March inviting Zuckerberg to testify.

During both hearings, Zuckerberg began by apologizing

"We didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibility, and that was a big mistake,” he told Congress. “It was my mistake, and I’m sorry. I started Facebook, I run it, and I’m responsible for what happens here.”

Congressional members grilled Zuckerberg about Facebook's response to several warnings about the data breach since 2015 and how the company plans to protect user data in the future.

Many members also asked tangential questions about the social network's actions in recent years, like letting housing advertisers exclude users by race and the purported censorship of conservatively leaning pages and posts, such as those of pro-Trump bloggers Diamond & Silk. 

Doyle chose to focus his line of questioning Wednesday on whether Facebook purposefully ignored developers' violations of its terms of service. 

Doyle asked Zuckerberg if the first time he heard of a possible data breach was through reporting from British newspaper The Guardian in 2015, despite Facebook possessing "some of the most advanced data processing techniques on the planet."

Zuckerberg responded that this was true.

"You had the capability to audit developers' use of Facebook user data and prevent these abuses. But the problem at Facebook not only persisted, it proliferated," Doyle told Zuckerberg. "In fact, relative to other types of problems you had on your platform, it seems as though you turned a blind eye to this."

Zuckerberg disagreed, telling Doyle that the company is constantly working on its policing and investigative processes. 

"It seems to us that you were more concerned with attracting and retaining developers on your platform than you were with ensuring the security of Facebook user data," Doyle insisted.

Doyle insinuated that the Cambridge Analytica scandal might have violated Facebook's 2011 consent decree with the Federal Trade Commission, which required the company to identify and address threats over the span of 20 years. The Washington Post reports that former FTC officials believe that the agency will strap Facebook with hefty fines as a result.

Doyle also took issue with Zuckerberg's promise to audit developers and customize users' privacy settings.

"It strikes me that there's a real trust gap here. This developer data issue is just one example," Doyle said. "Why should we trust you to follow through on these promises when you have demonstrated repeatedly that you're willing to flout both your own internal policies and government oversight when the need suits you?"

Again, Zuckerberg disagreed.

"We've had a review process for apps for years ... our process was not enough to catch a developer who sold data that they had in their system outside of ours," he said.

Doyle concluded his four minutes of questioning with a possible solution.

"To my mind, the only way we're going to close this trust gap is through legislation that creates and empowers a sufficiently resourced, expert oversight agency with rule-making authority to protect digital privacy and ensure that companies protect our users' data," he said. 

It's unclear what actions, if any, Congress will take to regulate Facebook. But Zuckerberg told Congress on Tuesday that government regulation of the internet is "inevitable," and that he is open to some.

Adelina Lancianese is the assistant producer for the NPR Story Lab, a creative studio that fosters newsroom experimentation and incubates new podcasts. At the Story Lab, Lancianese works primarily on investigative, long-form projects, and also helps organize the annual Story Lab Workshop for the development of new independent and Member station podcasts.