The future of Facebook's Libra cryptocurrency project still seems unclear, with The Social Network struggling to articulate the full details behind its plan, and its potential benefits.
This week, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was put to the test on Libra before the US House Financial Services Committee. And while Zuckerberg's testimony was primarily focused on Libra, Zuckerberg also faced questions about a range of other issues related to Facebook and its operations.
You can view Zuckerberg's full testimony and questions from the House here, but here are some of the key notes.
First off, on its Libra project - in his prepared remarks, which were released to the press a day early, Zuckerberg explained that Facebook's cryptocurrency would "extend America’s financial leadership, as well as our democratic values and oversight around the world.”
Zuckerberg also warned that if Facebook - and by extension America - didn't move forward on this, other nations would.
“While we debate these issues, the rest of the world isn’t waiting. China is moving quickly to launch similar ideas in the coming months.”
Zuckerberg explained to the House that Chinese-backed groups are looking to extend services like AliPay into new regions, essentially forming their own, separate currency that would be controlled by the Chinese government. Zuckerberg framed Libra as something of a defender against this, but the representatives seemed less than convinced about the viability of a Facebook-controlled payment and banking system.
Zuckerberg sought to distance Facebook itself from the project, by noting that the Libra Association would be a separate entity, which Facebook would not control, but the questions remained focused on how much they can trust Facebook to facilitate such a service, and how Facebook planned to stop people from using it for money laundering and other criminal activities.
Essentially, Facebook still seems to have a way to go in convincing the House, and others, that it can be trusted with people's money. And it now seems increasingly likely that this will cause a delay in the planned launch of Libra in 2020.
User Privacy and Political Ads
In questioning, Zuckerberg also faced scrutiny over Facebook's capacity to manage user data, including this query from Congresswoman Katherine Porter.
Classic. Facebook pretends they care about and will protect user privacy. Meanwhile, an army of their attorneys is marching into federal court to argue it's not their job. Which one is it? pic.twitter.com/xniAlH03sZ— Rep. Katie Porter (@RepKatiePorter) October 23, 2019
The question relates to this lawsuit, which seeks collective damages from Facebook for allowing third parties, such as Cambridge Analytica, to access users’ private data. As noted by Rep. Porter, Facebook's lawyers have argued that users suffered no “tangible” harm "and had no legitimate privacy interest in information they shared with friends on social media".
Zuckerberg was also queried about Facebook's stance on political ads, which he had personally sought to clarify in a public address last week, including this uncomfortable exchange about the potential for political candidates to spread hate speech through Facebook under different exemptions to those members of the public would face.
.@RepCasten asked Mark Zuckerberg if a member of the American Nazi party who is running for office (which was the case last year in Illinois) can speak on @facebook in a different fashion than a member of the Nazi party who is not running for office.— The Leadership Conference (@civilrightsorg) October 23, 2019
Zuckerberg could not answer. pic.twitter.com/4a8cTPEAAA
Seems there are still some problematic gray areas in Facebook's more "hands-off" approach to political messaging.
Zuckerberg was also asked about Facebook's decision to move ahead with encrypted messaging, which some have suggested could facilitate child exploitation.
Rep. Porter also questioned Zuckerberg about the potential mental impacts that Facebook moderators face, asking Zuckerberg if he would be willing to commit to "spending an hour a day for the next year watching these videos and acting as a content monitor, only accessing the same benefits as your workers?"
Zuckerberg questioned whether such an activity would be a good use of his time, which Rep. Porter took as a no.
Among these queries, Zuckerberg also got a chance to make a product announcement - which seems odd for such a stage. But this is the age we're now in.
In discussing Facebook's societal good, Zuckerberg noted that:
"Later this week, we actually have a big announcement coming up on launching a big initiative around news and journalism, where we're actually partnering with a lot of folks to build a new product that's supporting high-quality journalism."
That would be Facebook's long-touted, dedicated news tab, which, it seems, is being launched in the next few days.
Zuckerberg first planted the seeds of a dedicated, separate Facebook news tab back in April, with the first real details being released in August.
As Zuckerberg in April:
"One of the things that's really worked over the last year or two is we've launched [Facebook Watch] for video, where people who weren't getting all the video they wanted in News Feed could go to a place that's a dedicated space to get video. Because that has started to really grow quickly, we've decided that there really is an opportunity to do something like that with news as well."
More recent reports have detailed how Facebook will be looking to use human moderators to create a stream of 'trusted' news from reputable sources - which will no doubt raise more questions as to who decides what's 'trusted', and how Facebook prioritizes certain coverage.
Will that help Facebook's cause in promoting itself a vehicle for societal benefit, or will it add to the case for its capacity for division? It seems we're going to find out very soon.
Overall, it wasn't a great showing for Zuck and Facebook. Questions still remain on every front, and Libra looks increasingly less likely to be able to move forward in its current state.
The company's track record on issues like Cambridge Analytica has now brought a new wave of scrutiny, and Facebook may struggle to get projects like Libra off the ground as a result. Indeed, several commentators have speculated that if Libra had been proposed by any other company, it likely wouldn't have seen the same opposition.
But it didn't. It came from Facebook. And now Zuckerberg and team are being forced to deal with the extended consequences of their approaches to data and privacy of times past.