Mark Zuckerberg is testifying in the US Congress this week about issues surrounding privacy at Facebook. However it's not clear to me why the legislative branch would become involved in such minute details of a private company's operations. If I understand correctly Facebook didn't break any laws (all users accepted an agreement which basically gave away their data to Facebook forever) and therefore Congress shouldn't be involved in the first place.

So what is the point of Mark Zuckerberg testifying at the Capitol?

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    See twitter.com/alvarombedoya/status/983680929473466370 for some inside information on why
    – TylerH
    Commented Apr 10, 2018 at 16:48
  • I think an aspect that could help in the answers is does Zuck have to do this, as if being summonsed, or is he going along with it to save face/present his side of the story?
    – DasBeasto
    Commented Apr 10, 2018 at 19:37

5 Answers 5


It's not specifically about Facebook, Zuckerberg, or the "minutiae details of private company's operations", but rather the social media industry as a whole.

Essentially, the purpose is for lawmakers to get a first-hand, expert account of the current state of the industry, how effective current laws are and in what ways they potentially failed, and what changes/improvements should be made to prevent those failures from happening again. They're actually quite common for each section of Congress individually, though a joint hearing like Zuckerburg's is decently rare, and most are quite boring so they don't get much attention.

Looking at Mark Zuckerberg's prepared testimony should help answer the topics legislators are interested in, as it is essentially his expectations of what he'll be asked:

Election Interference: Obviously the big topic these days. Legislators would want to know how a foreign entity could use social media platforms to influence an election, so that they may better draft legislation/regulation aimed at minimizing interference.

Data Use: The Cambridge Analytica thing is what caused this most recent controversy. For this testimony, it is primarily regarding the proper use of data, who is responsible for monitoring that use, and what responsibilities the user/company/government should have. Again, legislators will want to know whether a company's voluntary policies are enough to protect consumers (who never read those agreements anyway since they aren't lawyers), or if changes to legislation/regulation is needed in order to prevent misuse of data.

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    +1 for social media as a whole. However, it is illegal for foreign entities to pay for advertisements to influence US elections. Regardless of other issues regarding social media, if Facebook turned a blind eye to that law in order to earn rubles they should be held responsible. Commented Apr 11, 2018 at 8:42

Privacy laws and the politics of Congressional inquiries

If I understand correctly Facebook didn't break any laws (all users accepted an agreement which basically gave away their data to Facebook forever) and therefore Congress shouldn't be involved in the first place.

Two things:

  1. Part of the inquiry is to determine if they did break any laws. For example, did Facebook promise not to pass information to third parties without the users' permission? They still did so, which could be considered fraud.
  2. The legislature's job is to pass laws. In particular, should they pass a law that makes either what Facebook did or what Cambridge Analytica did illegal?

Now of course, many members of Congress may not approach the inquiry that way. They are politicians. Many of them are running for reelection this year. They will be grandstanding for votes, because that's what politicians do. And criticizing someone like Mark Zuckerberg makes it look like they're willing to stand up to rich people. Even better, the politicians don't have to do anything but talk. They don't actually have to do anything to Zuckerberg. They can just scold him.

Campaign finance law and other campaigns

There are also other things unrelated to the current scandal that Congress might investigate. For example, in 2012, Facebook rather openly assisted the Barack Obama campaign without giving similar assistance to his opponent, Mitt Romney. Was that a violation of campaign finance laws? That's not a question of privacy or user permission.

Under current United States law, it is illegal for a corporation to provide direct support to a campaign. Corporations can only provide indirect support (via what are called "SuperPACs" since the Citizens United decision). But it remains illegal for corporations to donate directly to campaigns. SuperPACs can do things that are almost as good as campaign donations, but they are restricted from colluding with campaigns. They can't share information with campaigns that they don't share publicly.

Facebook has required Cambridge Analytica to delete the data that they obtained. Has Facebook required Democratic organizations to delete the data obtained in 2012? How have they verified that that has been done? Have they verified it transitively? I.e. if the Obama campaign obtained information that they shared with the Democratic National Committee who then shared with the Democratic Congressional Campaigns Committee who then shared with various Congressional campaigns, has the data been deleted from all of those? And again, how was that verified?

Alternately, if the Democratic organizations have not been required to delete the data, will Facebook share the same data with Republican organizations?

The Facebook part of the scandal

There is some confusion in the comments about what the scandal was. Both Cambridge Analytica and the Obama campaign extracted the social networks of people who consented to use their applications. This included data from friends who did not consent to the use of data. This is true of not just those two organizations but of a larger number of organizations, many of which had nothing to do with politics.

Facebook has said that they specifically asked Cambridge Analytica to delete such of their data as was not derived via consent. They now believe that Cambridge Analytica did not do so when requested and kept a copy of the data. Facebook would like to have an independent auditor verify that Cambridge Analytica no longer has access to that data.

Facebook has not said that they specifically asked the Obama campaign to delete the same kind of data. This is data obtained via friends who gave consent even though the user whose data it is did not consent. The original version of the API allowed this while newer versions do not. This is not to say that Facebook did not make that request. They may have--that's the question. If they did make that request of the Obama campaign, a follow-up question is how they verified it. They've already given information about how they are making Cambridge Analytica verify it.

It may also be true that both Cambridge Analytica and the Obama campaign made use of data legitimately or used other tools (e.g. advertising or requests that people message their friends) legitimately. That does not change the fact that both obtained information that Facebook now says it should not have given them.

From Politifact:

The Obama campaign and Cambridge Analytica both gained access to huge amounts of information about Facebook users and their friends, and in neither case did the friends of app users consent.

and later

Whereas the data gathering and the uses were very different, the data each campaign gained access to was similar.

There may be other questions about Cambridge Analytica's behavior. However, Zuckerberg/Facebook are not responsible for Cambridge Analytica's behavior. They are responsible for their own behavior. I.e. making the data available in the first place and enforcing the deletion of the data after it was found inappropriate.

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    First half is a good answer. Second half is an odd, partisan rant.
    – user1530
    Commented Apr 10, 2018 at 15:47
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    @blip - I don't see a rant. Facebook required one party to act in way not demanded of other parties. Why? On what ground? Is it permissible to treat customers in such vastly different ways? - Brythan brought up valid questions.
    – Mayo
    Commented Apr 10, 2018 at 15:58
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    @Mayo The point of an answer on Stack Exchange is to answer a question, not to pose several new ones that imply a partisan line of interest. This problem is made more evident by the fact that these new questions are totally irrelevant to the OP or the substantive part of the answer.
    – TylerH
    Commented Apr 10, 2018 at 16:51
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    Second half of this comment is irrelevant and misleading whataboutism. The difference in how the Obama campaign used the data can be found here. It boils down to the difference of people knowingly downloading an "Obama for America" app and providing info to the campaign vs. having users' data unknowingly harvested. Hell, Cambridge Analytica could have even read your private messages.
    – C. Helling
    Commented Apr 10, 2018 at 19:08
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    @RIanGillis The difference is that the Obama campaign had those users deliver their messaging to their friends, whereas Cambridge Analytica used the data of users and their friends to build psychological profiles on users which they then sold to 3rd parties and microtargeted with Russian propaganda and fake news stories. One app is a "get your friends to vote" app, the other sold your data to 3rd parties (and the original app itself hid its true purpose, which had nothing to do with politics). Pretending they are in any way equivalent is disingenuous at best. The difference in 1 word: consent.
    – C. Helling
    Commented Apr 10, 2018 at 20:46

If I understand correctly Facebook didn't break any laws (all users accepted an agreement which basically gave away their data to Facebook forever) and therefore Congress shouldn't be involved in the first place.

That's kind of the opposite of true. Congress is not a court. While they do have government oversight responsibilities, their job is not generally to determine if someone broke the law. They're legislators; their job is to write laws. When Congress wants to write a law on a topic, they first ought to figure out what's actually going on in that area (while they could just make up rules out of whole cloth, that's unlikely to do anything remotely useful).

Because Congress's job is writing laws, they are particularly interested in things that don't violate the law. If people break the law, it be handled by the courts or by administrative agencies in almost all situations. If someone is doing something shady that should maybe be illegal but isn't illegal yet, Congress's job is to decide if they should pass a law against it.

You mention:

all users accepted an agreement which basically gave away their data to Facebook forever

Contracts are not absolute. If a contract conflicts with the law of the land, the conflicting parts of the contract are void. Congress has the authority to say "social media sites must do XYZ to protect user data," and the user cannot waive this in a TOS. If Congress is considering writing laws about user data, it's important to know what sites like Facebook use it for at the moment so Congress can figure out whether these uses should or shouldn't be legal and adjust the laws accordingly.


Congress asks for testimony because it wants to. In this case, you have a combination of liberals concerned about Cambridge Analytica and conservatives concerned about what they believe is left-wing bias in the process Facebook uses to decide what is and is not acceptable content.

Incidentally, IMO the question of whether or not there is actually such bias is not relevant to answering this particular question. But the perception of bias, justified or not, is undeniable. And that perception is relevant, because it explains the conservative interest in hearing from Facebook. Here are three points of view about it:

Fox news (conservative)

Washington Post (frequently liberal but not this time)

Gizmodo (liberal/progressive)


I'll fix it for you:

If I understand correctly Facebook may have broken some laws (foreign nationals and foreign corporations are prohibited from making contributions or spending money to influence a federal, state or local election in the United States https://www.fec.gov/updates/foreign-nationals/) and that is matter of national security.

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