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Opinion: Out-of-touch Congress shouldn’t regulate Facebook

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Given the extreme lack of knowledge displayed by many members of Congress, the legislative branch proved it does not have the necessary intelligence on the matter to regulate Facebook.

Over a two-day period, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg faced hours of questions from members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives in the wake of the social media network’s Cambridge Analytica scandal. The discussion was meant to focus on Cambridge Analytica’s improper use of some 87 million Facebook users’ information.

Legislators, by many accounts, appeared clueless at times and flabbergasted at others.

Take Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Missouri, for instance, who started with a shoutout to his 13-year-old son, who’s “dedicated to Instagram,” and ended with a series of confusing questions about functionality and privacy settings.

“Do you track devices that an individual who uses Facebook has that is connected to the device that they use for their Facebook connection, but not necessarily connected to Facebook?” Blunt floundered.

Zuckerberg responded with a nonanswer, saying while Facebook may collect some data necessary to its operations, he didn’t have the information on hand and would follow up in the future. For Zuckerberg’s part, nonanswers were plentiful during the hearings.

The only other Missouri legislator to testify, Republican Rep. Billy Long started out of the gate by saying the Cambridge Analytica data breach isn’t important to his constituents, before moving on to allegations that Facebook removed conservative content.

“I represent 751,000 people, and out of that 751,000 people, the people in my area that are really worked up about Facebook and this hearing today would also fit with you there at the table. So, I’m not getting the outcry from my constituents about what’s going on with Cambridge Analytica,” Long said.

Rep. Long, your constituents aren’t as out of touch as you seem to think they are. Perhaps I’m one of the few – those Long said could fit around Zuckerberg at his congressional table – but this is a serious issue you’re nonchalantly brushing under the rug.

Data breaches on the world’s largest social media network should not be so easily dismissed out of ignorance or for any other reason.

The bulk of the legislators did not come prepared for what’s probably a one-time hearing with Zuckerberg. It was a chance to grill the CEO, but many spoiled it with softball questions and general confusion about Facebook itself. Here’s one of the examples you’ve probably read about by now.

“How do you sustain a business model in which users don’t pay for your service?” Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, asked.

“Senator, we run ads,” Zuckerberg responded, smirking.

To his credit, Blunt had a point on this subject that should not be overlooked.

“Information obviously is an important commodity. It’s what makes your business work,” he told Zuckerberg.

It’s reflective of an adage that’s passed around in various forms. The gist is, “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.”

The parallel certainly can be drawn for Facebook, a free service that gathers its users’ personal information to sell advertisements targeted to them. It’s much worse when a third-party firm, such as Cambridge Analytica, gains access to the same data.

Blunt and others had interesting points but ultimately stopped short of making a real impact.

It unfortunately became a question of, “Are our legislators fit to make policy decisions regarding Facebook?” – rather than the much more important, “Should the federal government regulate Facebook?” Or “How can the federal government regulate Facebook, and is it necessary?”

The answer to the first question, based on the interviews by Blunt and Long, as well many other lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, is an easy “not even close.”

Long hinted at potential action during his testimony.

“Congress is good at two things – doing nothing and overreacting,” he said. “So far, we’ve done nothing on Facebook. We’re getting ready to overreact.”

It was certainly a poignant warning and perhaps the most truthful thing he said. I worry that overreaction may include regulation.

To regulate, one must understand. Put simply, our out-of-touch legislators do not.

Lawmakers need to do their homework before facing down complex issues. As it stands, any Facebook regulation efforts they might attempt would not have teeth.

Springfield Business Journal Web Producer Geoff Pickle can be reached at gpickle@sbj.net.

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Geoff Great points, I observed also all the above and at the time thought, "Huh, do they not realize how they look?" Govt governs best, which governs least. Let's hope they know enough to not try. If we don't like it we can close our accounts. Thanks for a good factual review of the situation

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