It’s showtime for Mark Zuckerberg. The Facebook co-founder and CEO appears before Congress on Wednesday, testifying before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce about the recent data leak involving the personal information of more than 87 million Facebook users, whose data was used by Cambridge Analytica to target them with advertising and misinformation during the 2016 election.
Of course, we already know what Zuckerberg plans to say, not just because Congress released the text of his prepared statement on Monday, but because (as more than one person has pointed out) we have been down this road with the Facebook CEO so many times that it’s easy to lose track of the exact number. In some ways, Facebook’s entire history is a series of privacy-related mishaps and screwups, followed by a sincere and heartfelt apology from Zuckerberg and other Facebook executives.
In a recent piece for Wired magazine, sociologist Zeynep Tufekci calls it “Zuckerberg’s 14-year apology tour.” She lists the highlights of the company’s on-again, off-again interest in users’ privacy, starting with the 2006 controversy over the introduction of the News Feed, which many saw as a privacy disaster. Then in 2007 it was “Beacon,” which tracked people’s purchases and in many cases made them public without their consent. And so on. Zuckerberg’s prepared remarks for Wednesday are in the same vein:
It’s clear now that we didn’t do enough to prevent these tools from being used for harm as well. That goes for fake news, foreign interference in elections, and hate speech, as well as developers and data privacy. We didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibility, and that was a big mistake. It was my mistake, and I’m sorry. I started Facebook, I run it, and I’m responsible for what happens here.
The only real difference this time around is that Zuckerberg isn’t just apologizing to Facebook users in a blog post, he is testifying before Congress. And what he’s apologizing for isn’t just a few loose information policies or the fact that other users can see your purchases; he’s admitting that Facebook wasn’t prepared for the idea that its users’ data might be used to target election ads, or that Russian trolls would hijack the platform to try and swing the results of the presidential election. Does a “my bad” really cut it here?
What’s more than a little frustrating is that Zuckerberg’s apology statement suggests the company was just too darn naive, and too focused on all the good that Facebook can do in people’s lives. This might seem admirable, if it wasn’t for the fact that literally dozens of researchers like Tufecki and others have been pointing out the potential dangers for years, complete with tangible examples. Not to mention that there is a long history of negative outcomes associated with other platforms that Facebook could have learned from.
Congress may ask some hard questions on Wednesday (or members might just use the occasion for some personal grandstanding, as many did in the previous sessions in November) and Mark Zuckerberg may even convince both them and us that he is sincerely repentant. But how many times can we watch the same show without figuring out that little is going to change, because to change would require a completely different business model? Fool me once, shame on you — fool me 15 times, and maybe shame isn’t even the right word to be using at this point.