Utah internet experts size up Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s impending visit to Congress

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives for a meeting with Sen. John Thune, R-S.D. on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, April 9, 2018. Zuckerberg will testify Tuesday before a joint hearing of the Commerce and Judiciary Committees about the use of Facebook data to target American voters in the 2016 election. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

There are no bunny slopes on the internet — and to University of Utah law professor and privacy expert Leslie Francis, that’s a problem.

“Just like in ski resorts, you’re supposed to know which ones are green runs and which ones are blue and which ones are black. … Facebook doesn’t have little green signs,” said Francis, director of the U.’s Center for Law and Biomedical Studies. “We need to think together as a responsible society about how to identify and mitigate risks.”

With Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg preparing to testify Tuesday and Wednesday before Congress — in wake of the privacy scandal involving Cambridge Analytica, a data-mining firm associated with Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, gathering personal information from 87 million Facebook users — Francis knows what she wants him to say.

“I think he ought to be absolutely transparent about what Facebook does and what it doesn’t do,” said Francis, who wrote the 2017 book “Privacy: What Everyone Needs to Know” with her husband, U. political science professor John Francis. “I don’t know what particular piece of information I’d want to hear, because I don’t know entirely what Facebook does and what it doesn’t do. But I’d like to know.”

In prepared remarks, reported Monday by the Associated Press, Zuckerberg apologized for not protecting the privacy of Facebook’s users — and for the social-media platform being a conduit for fake news, hate speech and foreign interference in the 2016 U.S. elections.

“We didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibility, and that was a big mistake,” Zuckerberg said in his prepared statement, which he is expected to read Wednesday. “It was my mistake, and I’m sorry. I started Facebook, I run it, and I’m responsible for what happens here.”

Zuckerberg met Monday in private with the leaders of the Senate Judiciary and Commerce committees, to which he will testify in a joint hearing Tuesday. He is scheduled to testify Wednesday before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which released Zuckerberg’s prepared remarks.

Clark Asay, an associate professor of law at Brigham Young University, is expecting a lively show in the committee hearings.

“It’s a little bit a bunch of theatrics — there’s a crisis, there are hearings,” Asay said. “Ultimately, these companies’ bottom lines depend on having access and use of a lot of data, and information about the users. … I’d expect to hear enough to assuage people’s fears, but I can’t imagine these guys would ever advocate for actual regulatory measures that would impinge on their life blood.”

Issues of online privacy in the United States, Asay said, are “very much dictated by the market.” That’s in contrast to the model in Europe, where the European Union has enacted blanket regulations to protect the privacy of internet users.

Francis praised the European system, where there “is a single data-protection regulation, which applies to my data whether Amazon has it, or my doctor has it, or my bank has it. … In the U.S., data protection is a real patchwork. A different statute applies to my bank, and to my doctor, and to my video renter, and to my driver’s license authority.”

Issues of internet security need to be split into two concerns, Francis said: Data security, where information given to institutions (banks, government agencies, and so on) can be hacked; and privacy, “by which I really mean confidentiality” and how far information on social media is spread.

Many sites, including Facebook, have confidentiality settings, Francis said — but they can be difficult or confusing to use. “A lot of their privacy settings have been opt-out rather of opt-in,” Francis said. “People don’t know how to use them, or they think they’ve used them and they haven’t.”

Everyone must navigate the trade-off between privacy and convenience, said Pete Ashdown, president and founder of the Salt Lake City-based internet provider XMission.

“You can be the Unabomber and live in a shack and pay for everything with cash, and have a lot more privacy than you can if you have a credit card,” Ashdown said. “Sharing photos with your family is a lot harder if you’re not using something like Facebook or Instagram. It’s still possible. You can even print them off and mail them to your family if you want. You trade off your privacy when you start using a service like Facebook.”

Facebook was expected Monday to send notices to the 87 million users, most of them in the United States, whose data might have been shared by Cambridge Analytica, the AP reported. All 2.2 billion users were expected to receive a notice, with the title “Protecting Your Information,” providing a link to let them see what apps they use and what information they have shared on those apps.

Also Monday, Facebook announced an initiative to assist researchers looking into the role of social media in elections. In his prepared remarks, Zuckerberg again acknowledged his company’s foot-dragging in response to Russian election interference, and that the company “will continue working with the government to understand the full extent of Russian interference, and we will do our part not only to ensure the integrity of free and fair elections around the world, but also to give everyone a voice and to be a force for good in democracy everywhere.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.