Facebook, New York and politics

Photo courtesy of the House Energy and Commerce Committee
Facebook CEO Marck Zuckerberg testifies before Congress last week.

It has not been a good year for Facebook.

The social media giant has come under heavy fire from privacy advocates, lawmakers, politicians and users from around the globe for myriad concerns.

Questions have been raised regarding data security, the privacy of more than one billion users and how the company monitors, regulates and restricts political pages and advertising in the wake of the 2016 presidential election.

Many of those questions came to a head early last week, as Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg found himself, for the first time under oath, before Congressional lawmakers.

Zuckerberg was asked to answer questions pertaining to the scandal involving Cambridge Analytica, a British political consulting firm who improperly gained access to, and stored, the personal information of millions of Facebook users.

Here’s what we learned, and what New Yorkers can expect out of Albany as questions around Facebook continue to swirl.

What is the Cambridge Analytica, and why is it in the news?

According to the company’s mission statement, Cambridge Analytica serves as “a non-partisan organization,” and works with governments, non-governmental organizations and political campaigns in data analysis — crafting messages, policy and other actions that speak to what an audience wants to hear or see. The company is based in the United Kingdom, but has several offices across the globe.

The company become widely known after a March 16 post by Facebook’s vice president and deputy general counsel Paul Grewal, announced the company would be cutting ties with Cambridge Analytica. The announcement was made after it was discovered that Cambridge Analytica had gained access to and stored the private and personal information of Facebook users through the use of an application on the website.

“Several days ago, we received reports that, contrary to the certifications we were given, not all data was deleted,” Grewal said. “We are moving aggressively to determine the accuracy of these claims. If true, this is another unacceptable violation of trust and the commitments they made.”

The controversy has gained traction over the past month, particularly after it was discovered that the Trump campaign hired Cambridge Analytica to assist in data analytics for their campaign. Steve Bannon, former Trump campaign chair and a former advisor to the President, had served as chief executive of Cambridge Analytica from 2014 to 2016.

How many people are impacted? Were any of them New Yorkers?

According to leaked documents and testimony provided to The Guardian in March by Christopher Wylie, a former Cambridge Analytica employee who was involved in the collection of that data, more than 50 million Facebook users likely saw their information gathered by the firm. As of April 4, Facebook estimates upwards of 87 million users were impacted.

There has been no clarification of who in particular has been impacted. Facebook has alerted all users who may have been impacted by the situation through a notification at the top of their news feed, and has pledged to continue introducing enhanced security features that allow users more control over who has access to what data.

How have New York’s representatives reacted?

Legislators have expressed frustration and anger with Facebook over the growing pile of controversies. In addition to the revelations surrounding Cambridge Analytica, Facebook has come under fire for a series of controversies, including allowing foreign nationals to create political groups and run advertising in the 2016 election.

During Zuckerberg’s testimony with the House Energy and Commerce committee, Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, grilled Zuckerberg on the company’s role in ensuring the safety and security of it’s users personal information — a task that Tonko argued the company is doing solely out of concern for their bottom line.

Legislative Gazette file photo
Congressman Paul Tonko.

“I’m encouraged that Facebook is willing to make changes, but I am concerned that you are only acting now out of concern for your brand,” Tonko said during the hearing.

But not all members of the New York delegation have lashed out at Facebook or Cambridge Analytica for their role in the scandal.

Rep. John Faso, R-Kinderhook, largely stood by the firm and their use of data analytics in politics during an interview with The Daily Freeman, while also emphasizing his opposition to any use of illegally obtained data.

“Obviously if someone were illegally using information it’s clearly wrong and it should be dealt with,” Faso said. “But I think what is really necessary is for us to recognize the use of what many consumers think is private information is actually broadly being used by commercial advertisers and other interests to influence purchasing decisions (and) influence political decisions.”

Congressman John Faso

How is Albany responding to Facebook and transparency?

Legislators in Albany have largely steered clear of addressing concerns related to Facebook and users’ personal data. However, lawmakers have introduced three pieces of legislation — S.6896A/A.8816 and A9930 — aimed at ensuring the company is transparent with who purchases political advertising on the website.

The issue of transparency in advertising was also addressed in the 2019 New York budget through the passage of new good government and ethics reform legislation — a matter that Gov. Cuomo highlighted in a press release earlier this month.

“Our election system is the backbone of our democracy, and we cannot sit silently by as foreign entities interfere in our elections,” Cuomo said. “Last week, New York became the first state in the nation to pass comprehensive legislation requiring transparency in political advertising online and combating attempts by foreign entities or individuals to influence voters.

“I commend Facebook for following New York’s lead and doing the right thing. It is increasingly clear that social media has become a key medium for dangerous foreign influence in our elections, and social media companies like Facebook have a responsibility to do everything they can to stop it.”