Sen. Josh Hawley questioned Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, and had specific questions regarding Facebook’s ability to track users and data.
Hawley’s primary concern with regard to the big three tech companies was whether or not they were colluding across platforms to decide who and what should be banned or censored on each site.
“I’m talking about content moderation, individuals, websites, hashtags, phrases to ban,” Hawley said to Zuckerberg. “Is it your testimony that you do not communicate with Twitter or Google about content moderation, about individuals, websites, phrases, hashtags, websites, to ban? Yes or no, do you communicate with Twitter or Google about coordinating your policies in this way?”
“Senator, we do not coordinate our policies,” Zuckerberg replied.
“Do your Facebook content moderation teams communicate with their counterparts at Twitter or Google?”
“Senator, I’m not aware of anything specific, but I think it would probably be pretty normal for people to talk to their peers and colleagues in the industry,” Zuckerberg said.
Hawley cut him off, asking “It would be normal but you don’t do it?”
“I’m saying that I’m not aware of any particular conversation, but I would expect that some level of communication probably happens—”
“Ah,” Hawley remarked.
“But that’s different from coordinating what our policies are or responses in specific instances.”
“Well fortunately,” Hawley said, “I understand that the Tasks platform is searchable. So will you provide a list of every mention of Google or Twitter from the Tasks platform?”
“Senator, that’s something that I can follow up with you and your team after on.”
“Yes, or no, I’m sure you can follow up with the list, but why don’t you commit to, while I’ve got you here under oath, it’s so much better to do this under oath, will you commit now to providing a list from the Tasks platform of every mention of Google or Twitter?”
“Senator, respectfully, without having looked into this, I’m not aware of any sensitivity that exists around that, so I don’t think it would be wise for me to commit to that right now—” Zuckerberg said.
“So that’s a no?” Hawley asked.
“But I will follow up.”
Hawley continued: “How many items on the Tasks platform reflect that Facebook, Twitter, and Google are sharing information about websites, or hashtags, or platforms that they want to suppress?”
“Senator, I do not know.”
“Will you provide a list of every website or hashtag that Facebook content moderation teams have discussed banning on the Tasks platform?”
“Senator, again, I would be happy to discuss further with you or your team, how we might move forward on that—”
Hawley pressed on looking for Zuckerberg to give over a list, trying to determine whether or not Facebook, Google, and Twitter colluded on determining what content should be moderated, banned, and censored on these platforms. Hawley was not interested in Zuckerberg’s assurances, and wanted to know at the hearing if Zuckerberg would commit giving over the requested information.
Hawley noted, for the record, that Zuckerberg refused, before moving on to another internal Facebook tool, called Centra.
Zuckerberg said he wasn’t aware of a tool called Centra. Hawley said that “Centra is a took that Facebook uses to its track users not just on Facebook, but across the entire internet. Centra tracks different profiles that a user visits, their message recipients, their linked accounts, the pages they visit around the web that have Facebook buttons. Centra also uses behavioural data to monitor users accounts even if those accounts are registered under a different name.”
Facebook tells me Centra, the tool Hawley called out in his line of questioning, is used to aid investigations into subjects like coordinated inauthentic behavior. And Tasks is an internal coordination tool (Zuckerberg described it as an internal “to-do list.”)
— Emily Birnbaum (@birnbaum_e) November 17, 2020
Hawley showed a chart of Centra data tracking for one individual user, that showed nearly every point of contact from that user across the web.
“How many accounts in the United States have been tracked and shut down through review through Centra?”
Zuckerberg did not know, because he was “not familiar with that name.” Again, he said that he would be “happy to follow up.”
Hawley pressed, asking “When a Facebook employee accesses a user’s private information, private messages, or their personally identifiable data, is a record made of that, Mr. Zuckerberg?”
“I believe so.”
“Does it trigger an audit?” Hawley asked.
“Sometimes it may,” Zuckerberg said, but when pressed, did not know how many times that had happened or how frequent the practice was. He said that they could follow up.
“Will you commit to giving us a list of the number of times Facebook employees accessed users’ personal account information without their knowledge?”
Zuckerberg said that “Of course in the operation of the company, when someone reports something, it is sometimes necessary, for people at the company to go review and understand the context around what is happening when someone reports something. So this is fairly frequent and is a matter of course. We do have security systems that can detect anomalous patterns to flag,” and promised to follow up in more detail to get Hawley the information that was wanted.
Hawley alleged fully that there is collusion between the Big Tech companies to determine what to censor on their platforms.
“What we have here is clear evidence of coordination between Twitter, Google and Facebook. Mr. Zuckerberg knows he has the tools to track this but he either doesn’t remember or won’t commit to letting us see it. We have evidence of Facebook tracking its own users all across the web. Mr. Zuckerberg won’t answer questions about it, can’t remember the name, isn’t sure if the tool is deployed in this way, and won’t commit to giving us basic information.
“I submit to you that this is totally unacceptable and totally predictable. Because it is exactly what these tech companies have done to the American people and to Congress for years now, which is why it is time we took action against these modern day robber barons.”