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Zuckerberg won’t commit to making data privacy as easy as possible

In a tense moment, Zuckerberg balked when Rep. Frank Pallone challenged him with a simple “yes/no” on privacy.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg Testifies At House Hearing Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

At Facebook founder and CEO’s Mark Zuckerberg’s hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday, lawmakers were blunt about what they see as the company’s flaws — its inadequate self-policing, lack of transparency, and reluctance to give users more control over their own data.

In a particularly tense moment, Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) asked Zuckerberg if he would commit to minimizing, “to the greatest extent possible, the collection and use of users’ data.”

Then he asked Zuckerberg for a simple “yes” or “no” response — which Zuckerberg hesitated to give.

It was one of the first times over Zuckerberg’s two-day congressional testimony that he struggled to provide a full, polished answer when challenged about the changes Facebook was willing to make:

“Will you commit to changing all the user default settings to minimize to the greatest extent possible the collection and use of users’ data? Can you make that commitment?” Pallone asked.

Zuckerberg launched into a response: “Congressman, we try to collect and give people the ability —”

Pallone stopped him to demand a “yes” or “no” answer: “Will you make the commitment to changing all the user default settings to minimize to the greatest extent possible the collection and use of users’ data? I don’t think that’s hard for you to say yes to, unless I’m missing something.”

“Congressman,” Zuckerberg answered, “this is a complex issue that I think deserves more than a one-word answer.”

At a moment when lawmakers are scrutinizing the company to see how willing it is to adopt drastic changes to its policies, or whether the government will need to force the company’s hand through stronger regulatory measures, Zuckerberg’s lack of a ready response is a deeply telling moment.

The exchange suggests Facebook isn’t ready to fully change its business model to atone for its many sins. It also reflects just how big and complex Facebook’s many moving parts are and how difficult regulation would be at this point in the company’s growth.

Zuckerberg attempted to defend his reasoning, reminding Pallone that “the reason why we built the developer platform in the first place was because we thought it would be great if more experiences that people had could be more social” — and that to make those social interactions happen, “you need to be able to sign in to an app, bring some of your data, some of your friends’ data, and that’s what we built.”

A transcript of the full exchange follows.

Pallone

Let me ask you three quick questions. Answer yes or no because of the time. Yes or no, is Facebook limiting the amount or type of data Facebook itself collects or uses?

Zuckerberg

Congressman, yes. We limit a lot of the data that we collect and use.

Pallone

See, I don’t see that in the announcements you’ve made. You’ve made all these announcements in the last few days about the changes you’re going to make, and I don’t really see how those announcements or changes limits the amount of type of data that Facebook uses in an effective way.

Let me go to the second one. Again, this is my concern that users currently may not know or take affirmative action to protect their own privacy. Yes or no? Is Facebook changing any user default settings to be more privacy protective?

Zuckerberg

Congressman, yes. In response to these issues, we’ve changed be a lot of the way that our platform works so that way developers can’t get access to as much information.

Pallone

See, again, I don’t see that in the changes that you’ve proposed. I don’t really see any way that you’re changing the user default settings that there will be more privacy protected but let me go to the third one.

Yes or no? Will you commit to changing all the user default settings to minimize to the greatest extent possible the collection and use of users’ data? Can you make that commitment?

Zuckerberg

Congressman, we try to collect and give people the ability—

Pallone

I’d like you to answer yes or no if you could? Will you make the commitment to changing all the user default settings to minimize to the greatest extent possible the collection and use of user’s data? I don’t think that’s hard for you to say yes to unless I’m missing something.

Zuckerberg

Congressman, this is a complex issue that I think deserves more than a one-word answer.

Pallone

Well, again, that’s disappointing to me because I think you should make that commitment. Maybe what we could do is follow up with you on this if possible. We can do that follow-up?

Zuckerberg

Yes.

Pallone

All right. Now you said yesterday that each of us owns the content that we put on Facebook and that Facebook gives control to the consumers over their content but we know about the problems with Cambridge Analytica. I know you changed your rules in 2014 and again this week, but you still allow third parties to have access to third-party data. How can consumers have control over their data when Facebook doesn’t have control over the data itself? That’s my concern. Last question.

Zuckerberg

Congressman, what we allowed our developer platform is for people to choose to sign in to other apps and bring their data with them. That’s something that a lot of people want to be able to do. The reason why we built the developer platform in the first place was because we thought it would be great if more experiences that people had could be more social.

So if you could have a calendar that showed your friends’ birthdays, if you could have an address book that had pictures of your friends in it, if you could have a map that showed your friends’ addresses on it.

In order to do that, you need to be able to sign in to an app, bring some of your data, some of your friends’ data, and that’s what we built. Since then, we’ve recognized that that can be used for abuse too. We’ve limited it so that people can only bring their data when they go to an app. That’s something that a lot of people do on a day-to-day basis and sign in to their apps with Facebook.

Chair Greg Walden (R-OR)

We’re going to have to move on.

Pallone

I think that there’s not enough — people aren’t empowered enough to make those decisions in a positive way.

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