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Zuckerberg Promises Changes at Facebook, But Impact on K-12 Unclear

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Following months of controversy, social-networking giant Facebook is owning up to its mistakes and taking steps to improve its data-handling practices, CEO Mark Zuckerberg told U.S. senators during a marathon hearing Tuesday.

"Across the board, we have a responsibility to not just build tools, but to make sure those tools are used for good," Zuckerberg said in prepared remarks released prior to his testimony before the joint Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees.  

In response to growing concerns, Facebook is limiting developers' access to the personal information of its 2 billion users, working to slow the spread of fake news and misinformation, and wrestling with how to best address discrimination and hate speech on its platform, Zuckerberg told often-skeptical lawmakers.

While there was little explicit focus on schools, the hearing did hold a few important nuggets for K-12 educators and policymakers:  

  • Zuckerberg pledged that Facebook will investigate "tens of thousands" of apps that had access to vast stores of user data before the company changed its policies in 2014. That will likely include education-focused apps and services that offered Facebook Login as a way for users to sign in (although no list of apps being investigated has yet been made public.)
  • The Facebook CEO defended Messenger Kids, the company's new app aimed at families with young children, which has drawn considerable criticism.
  • As part of its efforts to better police problematic content on its platform, Zuckerberg said he believes Facebook has a responsibility to address user references to self-harm and bullying.
  • In response to questioning from Democratic Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts, Zuckerberg declined to support a legislative "privacy bill of rights" for children under age 16.
  • He generally downplayed concerns about "tech addiction," saying the company's internal research suggests "using social media to build relationships" is associated with healthy long-term development.
  • Zuckerberg acknowledged that Facebook has struggled to find the right balance between making its privacy policy comprehensive and making it simple and readable—a challenge affecting many technology and ed-tech companies.

Tuesday's hearing came on the heels of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which a third-party developer used Facebook tools to harvest the personal data of 87 million Facebook users, then inappropriately shared that information with a British political consulting firm, which in turn used the information to target political advertisements to American voters as part of the effort to elect Donald Trump as president.

Facebook has also come under fire for enabling advertisers to violate federal fair housing laws by serving racially discriminatory ads and for failing to take seriously a flood of made-up news stories, conspiracy theories, and internet hoaxes, among other complaints.

For nearly five hours, senators—many of whom demonstrated a tenuous grasp of the technology underlying Facebook's business—grilled Zuckerberg, clad in a navy suit and blue tie rather than his trademark t-shirt and hoodie.

"The status quo no longer works," 84-year old Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, the Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee, told the 33-year old Facebook chief executive.

Facebook already making some changes

Despite the mounting concerns, K-12 schools have generally been reluctant to sign on to the #DeleteFacebook movement, in large part because they view the platform as an irreplaceable tool for communicating with parents and the public. 

A number of senators questioned whether such market dominance means Facebook needs to be better regulated.

"You don't think you have a monopoly?" asked Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

"It certainly doesn't feel like that to me," Zuckerberg responded.

Still, the Facebook chief said he is open to some regulation.

The company has already made significant changes, he said. In 2014, for example, Facebook altered its platform to "dramatically limit" the types of user and friend information that third-party developers can access, Zuckerberg said in his prepared remarks. The company is now further restricting developers, he said.

In addition, Facebook is in the process of investigating "every app that had access to a large amount of information before we locked down our platform in 2014," he said. "If we detect suspicious activity, we'll do a full forensic audit. And if we find that someone is improperly using data, we'll ban them and tell everyone affected."

That effort could end up involving ed-tech companies, many of which allowed users to use their Facebook accounts (insteading of creating new credentials) to let students and other users log into their websites or apps. That feature, known as Facebook Login, previously allowed developers to access a range of information from the Facebook profiles of users and their friends.

Facebook is also supporting the Honest Ads Act, which would require internet companies to disclose more information about online political advertisements and work to ensure that such ads are not being paid for by foreign countries.

The company has surprised some observers by expressing support for soon-to-take-effect European legislation known as the General Data Protection Regulation, which has been hailed by privacy advocates.

And Zuckerberg said it "makes sense to consider" legislation that would encourage technology companies to have a "simple and practical set of ways you explain what you're doing with data."

Lawmakers skeptical about Facebook use by children

Still, the Facebook CEO faced skepticism from many senators.

"There's clearly a tension between your bottom line and what's best for your users," Senator Maggie Hassan, a Democrat from New Hampshire, said.

Hassan and Republican Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska were among the handful of lawmakers to express concern over ways that Facebook has sought to expand its user base and lock in users for longer amounts of time, despite concerns about adverse health effects, especially for children.

In February, for example, nonprofit advocacy group Common Sense Media teamed with a group of disillusioned former tech-industry insiders (including former Facebook investor and advisor Roger McNamee) to launch a "Truth About Tech" campaign aimed at pressuring tech companies to make their products "less intrusive and less addictive," especially for children.

"This is certainly something any parent thinks about," Zuckerberg said in response to questions from Sasse.  

The Facebook chief executive reiterated his previously stated view that more active uses of social media (such as sharing photos and connecting with family) are associated with long-term health, but "if you're using the internet and social media to passively consume content, it doesn't have those positive effects."

With regard to Facebook's new Messenger Kids app, Zuckerberg said it "collects the minimum amount of information that is necessary to operate the service" and that such data are "not going to be shared with third parties"—directly responding to some of the data-privacy concerns raised by advocates and pediatricians.

And despite saying that "protecting minors and protecting their privacy is extremely important," Zuckerberg declined to support a "privacy bill of rights" bill introduced earlier in the day by Sen. Markey and his Democratic colleague Richard Blumenthal, of Connecticut. The bill would require that consumers, including children and their parents, have the right to opt in to companies collecting and using their personal information, instead of having to opt out of such uses.

Zuckerberg will be back on Capitol Hill Wednesday morning, when he is scheduled to testify before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

"It will take some time to work through all of the changes we need to make, but I'm committed to getting it right," Zuckerberg said.

Photo: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is surrounded by photographers before his testimony before a joint hearing of the Commerce and Judiciary Committees on Capitol Hill in Washington on April 10.--Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP


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