Earlier this week, Facebook submitted nearly 500 pages worth of written responses to dozens of US senators’ questions stemming from CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s April 2018 testimony before two committees.
In the documents, the company attempted to provide clarity to the lingering concerns many lawmakers had. While seemingly trying to be forthright overall, Facebook was also evasive when responding to certain critical questions.
Notably, Facebook declined to promise to share the results of its post-Cambridge Analytica investigation with the public or even Congress. The social media giant also wouldn’t say if it had ever turned off a feature for privacy reasons.
Finally, Facebook took a stronger position against offering a more private, paid, ad-free version of it service, saying that if it did so “it would not be Facebook.”
In April 2018, it was revealed that a 2014 survey app that required Facebook login credentials allowed the survey creator, Aleksandr Kogan, and his team access to their friends’ public profile data. In the end, this system captured data on 87 million Facebook users. This data trove wound up in the hands of Cambridge Analytica, a British data analytics firm, which worked for the Donald Trump presidential campaign. Cambridge Analytica filed for bankruptcy nearly a month ago. The incident ultimately led to Zuckerberg’s DC testimony and this 500-page(ish) submission.
In her written questions, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California) asked: “In 2014, Facebook updated its policies to reduce third party applications’ access to user data. Facebook is now investigating applications that, as you described had access to ‘a large amount of information,’ before this change?”
Facebook explained that it was working on an investigation of “every app that had access to a large amount of information before we changed our Platform in 2014.” The company added that this process will take “many months.”
So far, “thousands of apps” have been examined and “around 200 apps” have been suspended.
“These apps relate to a handful of developers: Kogan, AIQ, Cube You, the Cambridge Psychometrics Center, and myPersonality, with many of the suspended apps being affiliated with the same entity,” Facebook said.
It was Kogan’s 2014 app, “This is Your Digital Life,” which invited users to log in with their Facebook credentials and answer a slew of survey questions in exchange for $4. Those respondents also allowed Kogan and his team access to their friends’ public profile data.
Incidentally, Kogan is now set to testify before a Senate subcommittee on June 19.
AIQ, which worked on the pro-Brexit campaign, was suspended from Facebook in April.
Feinstein concluded by asking: “Will Facebook make public the results of this investigation? If not, why not and will you notify Congress and provide the results when you are done?”
Facebook did not answer this question directly, instead simply saying: “Where we find evidence that these or other apps did misuse data, we will ban them from the platform and tell people who used or may have had data shared with the app.”
Silver State, silver lining
Meanwhile, Sen. Cortez Masto (D-Nevada) asked what seemed like a relatively simple question: “Has Facebook ever launched a feature that had to be turned off because of the privacy implications?”
Facebook’s response, coming in at over 400 words, would not answer in the affirmative or the negative.
The company began by noting that “protecting people’s information is at the heart of everything that we do,” adding that it maintains a “cross-functional, crossdisciplinary effort” in the name of privacy.
However, the company also noted elsewhere that Facebook users cannot opt out of having their data shared with researchers like Kogan.
Facebook continued, stating that privacy is considered “early in the product development process.” The company said it submits reports every two years to the Federal Trade Commission to stay in compliance with a consent agreement.
Facebook seemed to be suggesting in this answer, as it said so explicitly elsewhere, that because the FTC knew about the sharing of friends’ data and did nothing about it, that Facebook essentially shouldn’t be on the hook for that.
Question 7. Why did Facebook hire Joseph Chancellor, who was the business partner of Aleksandr Kogan, around the same time as the Guardian article alerted you to the violation of your policies?
Mr. Chancellor is a quantitative researcher on the User Experience Research team at Facebook, whose work focuses on aspects of virtual reality. We are investigating Mr. Chancellor’s prior work with Kogan through counsel.
Question 8. Why do you continue to employ him to this day?
See Response to Question 7.
Aloha means hello and goodbye
Finally, in new written answers provided to Sen. Mazie Hirono, a Hawaiian Democrat, Facebook now seemed to be walking back Zuckerberg’s suggestion that it may offer a more private ad-free version sometime. The founder formerly told Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) during the DC hearing: “There will always be a version of Facebook that will be free.”
This prompted Hirono to ask: “But is an advertising based model really the only way to make Facebook accessible to all people, or is it the only way to do so while making massive profits?”
Facebook’s answer sidestepped the proposed dichotomy, and the company acknowledged that like other freemium online services, it makes money through ads.
“Advertising lets us keep Facebook free, which ensures it remains affordable for everyone,” the company wrote.
“If we were not able to personalize or select ads or other content based on relevance, this would fundamentally change the service we offer on Facebook—and it would no longer be Facebook. We maintain our commitment to privacy by not telling advertisers who users are or selling people’s information to anyone. That has always been true. We think relevant advertising and privacy are not in conflict, and we’re committed to doing both well.”
Facebook did not answer Ars’ questions on Thursday evening as to why it did not always clearly answer the senators’ questions.