Jason Chaffetz: In Facebook’s world you are the product -- Not the customer

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Have you ever tried calling Facebook’s customer service department when you have a problem? The company doesn’t have one! That’s because Facebook users have never been the customer.

Mark Zuckerberg started Facemash (later to become Facebook) while a student at Harvard in 2003, as a way to rate the looks of students based on their photos. The students were not the customer. They were the product. Nothing has changed.

Free social media platforms are there solely to understand everything about you so they can sell advertising to savvy marketing companies. The only thing shocking about this reality is that it shocks some people.

With the revelation that Republicans – not just Democrats – may actually have benefited from the use of Facebook user data in an election, Congress has suddenly developed an interest in data privacy.

This discussion is an important one –- regardless of the partisan spark that set it off.

The vaunted data mining operation of President Obama’s first presidential campaign set off few alarm bells at the time. But from the very start, Americans have been the product of social media platforms, not the customer.

Once again, it’s time to bring in the nerds. Back in 2011, I made a similar demand when not-so-Internet-savvy members of Congress were trying ineffectively to address online piracy. Now the issue is online privacy, but the remedy is the same.

If we truly want to know how vulnerable our privacy is, then Congress should have gotten not only Mark Zuckerberg, but experts on the front lines of technology development on the record to testify.

These experts must answer questions regarding serious concerns about facial recognition technology, access to our private email accounts and text messages, audio monitoring capabilities, profiling algorithms, data collection from minors, and all things related to personal privacy.

How advanced is facial recognition software and how is it being used?  What are they actually doing with all of those photos?  Will ads target me based on the stores I visit?

What is it about this technology that worries Google employees enough that last week 3,000 of them said they didn’t want their artificial intelligence technology to be used for war?

Technology companies are clearly working on facial recognition programs, but they’ve given us very little information about how those programs work or how they’ll be marketed.

In his testimony before Congress this week, Zuckerberg was asked about his platform’s access to text messages – a feature he said users must opt in to receive.

But how does Facebook use this information? How does Google use the content of our emails to sell us advertising? Can these platforms track the cookies on our web browsers to compile data about our Internet surfing habits? Zuckerberg seemed to confirm that they can. How is that information being used?

Clearly, technology companies have exhibited signs of a political bias. How does that play out? Do favored groups receive special treatment?

How influential are social media platforms in censoring information, pushing out narratives, and shaping electoral results? Shouldn’t we demand answers to those questions from the very people designing the technology?

What about the use of these platforms by minors? How can a minor enter into a user agreement with Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and the like?

Nowhere in the law is a 12-year-old allowed to enter into a contract. Yet Facebook takes the child’s information, packages it, and sells it – with the assumption that the child can legally give permission to become a product. These are questions that have not been satisfactorily addressed.

Unfortunately, not much came out of this week’s Senate and House hearings with Facebook’s Zuckerberg other than apologies and promises to do better.

What Congress should be doing is digging deeper to get answers. Call in the nerds. Find people who aren’t used to testifying, but actually know how the algorithms of these high-tech companies work.

The American people need more than a legalistic document listing terms of an agreement. Congress should lead the way.