Facebook is asking users whether they think it’s “good for the world” in a poll sent to an unspecified number of people. The news broke Tuesday, hours ahead of Wednesday’s announcement that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg would testify before Congress on April 11. Also, Facebook is revamping its privacy policies.
The poll appears under the heading, “We’d like to do better,” when users log in. Possible responses range from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree.”
The company has been grappling with a privacy scandal and other troubles . But Facebook says this survey began well before that; versions date back to 2012. The company regularly polls users on other aspects of its service, too.
Zuckerberg has said he wants to ensure that Facebook is a force for good. Whether it is hasn’t been clear amid revelations of bad actors using Facebook to influence elections, spread hatred and pilfer user information.
Privacy rules revised
The company unveiled the revisions as it faces one of its worst privacy scandals in history.
Almost always, critics say, the changes meant a move away from protecting user privacy toward pushing openness and more sharing. On the other hand, regulatory and user pressure has sometimes led Facebook to pull back on its data collection and use and to explain things in plainer language — in contrast to dense legalese from many other internet companies.
Among Wednesday’s changes: Facebook has added a section explaining that it collects people’s contact information if they choose to “upload, sync or import” this to the service. This may include users’ address books on their phones, as well as their call logs and text histories. The new policy says Facebook may use this data to help “you and others find people you may know.”
The previous policy did not mention call logs or text histories. Several users were surprised to learn recently that Facebook had been collecting information about whom they texted or called and for how long, though not the actual contents of text messages. It seemed to have been done without explicit consent, though Facebook says it collected such data only from Android users who specifically allowed it to do so — for instance, by agreeing to permissions when installing Facebook.
Facebook also adds clarification that local laws could affect what it does with “sensitive” data on people, such as information about a user’s race or ethnicity, health, political views or even trade union membership. This and other information, the new policy states, “could be subject to special protections under the laws of your country.” But it means the company is unlikely to apply stricter protections to countries with looser privacy laws — such as the U.S., for example. Facebook has always had regional differences in policies, and the new document makes that clearer.
On Wednesday, news broke that Zuckerberg will testify before a House oversight panel on April 11 amid a privacy scandal that has roiled the social media giant.
Reps. Greg Walden, R-Ore., and Frank Pallone, D-N.J., said the House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing will focus on the Facebook’s “use and protection of user data.” Announcement of the hearing date comes as Facebook faces scrutiny over its data collection following allegations that the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica obtained data on tens of millions of Facebook users to try to influence elections. Walden is the committee’s Republican chairman and Pallone is the panel’s top Democrat.
“This hearing will be an important opportunity to shed light on critical consumer data privacy issues and help all Americans better understand what happens to their personal information online,” Walden and Pallone said.
Their committee is the first of three congressional panels that requested Zuckerberg’s testimony to announce a hearing date. The Senate Commerce and Judiciary committees also have called for Zuckerberg to appear before them.
Walden and Pallone said last month that they wanted to hear directly from Zuckerberg after senior Facebook executives failed to answers questions during a closed-door briefing with congressional staff about how Facebook and third-party developers use and protect consumer data.
Zuckerberg said during a March 21 interview on CNN that he would be “happy” to testify before Congress, but only if he was the right person to do that. He said there might be other Facebook officials better positioned to appear, depending on what Congress wanted to know. Walden and Pallone said a day later that as Facebook’s top executive, Zuckerberg is indeed the “right witness to provide answers to the American people.”
Cambridge Analytica fallout
Their call represented the first official request from a congressional oversight committee for Zuckerberg’s appearance as lawmakers demanded that Facebook explain reports that Cambridge Analytica harvested the data of more than 50 million Facebook users.
The company, funded in part by Trump supporter and billionaire financier Robert Mercer, paired its vault of consumer data with voter information. The Trump campaign paid the firm nearly $6 million during the 2016 election, although it has since distanced itself. Other Republican clients of Cambridge Analytica included Sen. Ted Cruz’s failed presidential campaign and Ben Carson, the famed neurosurgeon who also ran unsuccessfully for president in 2016.
The data was gathered through a personality test app called “This Is Your Digital Life” that was downloaded by fewer than 200,000 people. But participants unknowingly gave researchers access to the profiles of their Facebook friends, allowing them to collect data from millions more users.
It’s far from certain what action, if any, the GOP-led Congress and the Trump administration might take against Facebook, but the company will almost certainly oppose any efforts to regulate it or the technology business sector more broadly.
As do most large corporations, Facebook has assembled a potent lobbying operation to advance its interests in Washington. The company spent just over $13 million on lobbying in 2017, with the bulk of the money spent on an in-house lobbying team that’s stocked with former Republican and Democratic political aides, according to disclosure records filed with the House and Senate. The company sought to influence an array of matters that ranged from potential changes to government surveillance programs to corporate tax issues.