Washington • Sen. Orrin Hatch said Tuesday he was concerned about the privacy of social media users but defended Facebook’s approach to targeting ads by collecting data about its users.
“Some profess themselves shocked — shocked! — that companies like Facebook and Google share user data with advertisers,” Hatch said while questioning Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg. “Did any of these individuals ever stop to ask themselves why Facebook and Google don’t charge for access? Nothing in life is free. Everything involves trade-offs.”
Zuckerberg, appearing before Congress for the first time, fielded hours of questions about how the tech giant protects users’ personal information after revelations that Cambridge Analytica acquired Facebook’s user data under the guise of academic research and then used it for political purposes to help elect President Donald Trump.
Hatch, a Utah Republican who heads the Senate’s High Tech Task Force, said he feared Congress would respond to the latest news with overburdening regulation but that the best approach is for social media websites and apps to be more transparent in how a users’ information is gathered and shared.
“If you want something without having to pay for it, you’re going to have to pay for it in some other way, it seems to me,” Hatch said, noting that “great websites, extract value in some other way” if they don’t charge for use.
“And there’s nothing wrong with that,” he said, “as long as they’re upfront on what they’re doing.”
Under questioning by Hatch, Zuckerberg said that there may be a model for charging some Facebook users for access if they want to avoid ads, but that there “will always be a version of Facebook that is free.”
Hatch pressed on how the company could sustain a profitable business without charging users.
“Senator, we run ads,” Zuckerberg said, with a hint of a smile.
The Facebook founder offered a mea culpa to the Senate Judiciary and Commerce committees for the company falling short in protecting its users as well as halting fake news trolls.
“So we have made a lot of mistakes in running the company,” Zuckerberg said. “I think it’s pretty much impossible, I believe, to start a company in your dorm room and then grow it to be at the scale that we’re at now without making some mistakes.”
But Zuckerberg said the company was devoted this year in using technology to block false user profiles and ensure users know how their information is shared.
While Hatch said he was worried about Congress jumping to a legislative solution, Zuckerberg said there could be some changes to laws about privacy and notification to people signing up for access.
“There are a few categories of legislation that make sense to consider,” he said, noting that a simpler, less legalistic disclosures might help users understand how their information is governed.
Later in the hearing, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, followed up on questions from Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, about Facebook leaning left politically and taking down some conservative voices or boosting more liberal lines of thoughts.
“Would you agree that Facebook ought not to be putting its thumb on the scale with regard to the content of speech, assuming its not in one of the categories of what is prohibited?” Lee asked, with the latter referring to content like hate speech, racist speech or threats of violence.
“Senator, yes,” Zuckerberg responded.