Russia’s use of social media to disrupt the 2016 election was the stated subject of Tuesday’s senate hearing with representatives of Facebook, Twitter, and Google, but Louisiana’s John Kennedy used his five minutes to explore deeper fears about entrusting so much data with these tech giants.
“Gentlemen, I’m very proud that the three companies you’re representing today are American companies,” the Republican senator said in his opening remarks. “And I think you do enormous good. But your power sometimes scares me.”
Colin Stretch, Facebook’s general counsel, proved the main target of Kennedy’s grilling. The senator tried to force Stretch to admit some seemingly basic but uncomfortable realities: that it’s impossible for Facebook to confirm its estimated five million advertisers all are who say they are, and that Facebook’s design means it has the ability to gather incredibly specific information about individual users, even if it has rules against that.
“I’m trying to get us down from la la land here,” said Kennedy, as he repeatedly pushed Stretch to talk not about what Facebook intends to do, but what it can do.
Kennedy drew on his previous experience as a lawyer in his often tense questioning of Stretch, who appeared flustered and uncertain how to respond at multiple points.
Watch here as Kennedy demands to know how Facebook can possibly track all five million of its advertisers.
“The truth of the matter is you have five million advertisers that change every month, every minute, probably every second,” said Kennedy. “You don’t have the ability to know who every one of those advertisers is, do you? Today, right now. Not your commitment, I’m asking about your ability.”
Stretch acknowledged that Facebook could not look beyond its current platform to know with universal certainty whether any of its advertisers are shell companies.
Watch here as Kennedy argues Facebook’s whole business model is based on selling user data to advertisers.
Kennedy then asked Stretch how an advertiser would choose who to target on Facebook, given it would be too expensive for most companies to advertise to everybody on the site.
“You can help me narrow down because that your business model,” Kennedy suggested. “You collect data and lease it out to companies who use that data to sell people products, services, and candidates. Isn’t that basically your business model?”
Stretch responded by pointing out Facebook provides targeted ads, without sharing the data of specific individuals with advertisers. This led into the tensest section of Kennedy’s questions.
Watch here as Kennedy pushed Stretch on how much information Facebook could gather about Senator Lindsey Graham.
Kennedy posed the hypothetical that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg approached an employee and asked him to find out everything about Senator Lindsey Graham, including movies he lies, the bars he goes to, what school he attended, and so on.
“You could do that, couldn’t you?” asked Kennedy.
“The answer is absolutely not,” responded Stretch. “We have limitations in place on our ability to…”
“I’m not asking about your rules,” interrupted Kennedy. “I’m saying you have the ability to do that, don’t you?”
Stretch again said the answer was no, saying Facebook’s systems are designed to make it impossible to match particular individuals with particular data.
“That’s your testimony under oath?” asked Kennedy.
Stretch confirmed that it was.
Tuesday’s hearing is one of three Congressional hearings this week in which representatives of the tech companies will testify on Russian disinformation in the 2016 election.