A Senate hearing with tech support

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“In my college dorm room,” Mark Zuckerberg repeated over and over again during his testimony before half the US Senate yesterday, repeatedly reminding the world where he created Facebook and reminding me, a college student, just how unaccomplished I am.

I didn’t think Zuckerberg was going to fare well before the Senate. Hours of cameras, long complicated questions and facing a panel, elevated just enough you actually have to tilt your head up.

This is a hot, complicated topic, so intricate, delicate and complex it would be hard to talk about, answer questions on or frankly, just understand. Consequently, the first hearing revealed more about the Senators than about Zuckerberg. The elderly bunch clearly didn’t understand how Facebook worked on a basic level — much less how to regulate it.

It seemed as if the Senators couldn’t even begin to grasp what it means to “add a friend on Facebook,” “block someone” or change the privacy setting on the interface. The hearing could be summed up by an interaction between Louisiana Senator John Kennedy and Zuckerberg.

Senator Kennedy came in hot with an opening failed roast.

“Here’s what everyone’s been trying to tell you today — and I say it gently — your user agreement sucks,” Kennedy began.

“I would imagine probably most people do not read the whole thing,” Zuckerberg calmly replied. “Everyone has the opportunity to and consents to it.”

So Senator Kennedy took it upon himself to give Zuckerberg some unsolicited advice.

“I’m going to suggest you go home and rewrite it, and tell your $1,200 dollar an hour lawyer…you want it written in English not Swahili, so the average American user can understand,” Kennedy said.

Okay, Senator. Great idea. I’ll get right on it and translate everything from Swahili to English because it’s not already written in English and presented clearly to everyone.

Point Zuckerberg. The rest of the conversation went like this.

Kennedy: “Are you willing to go back and work on giving me a greater right to erase my data?”

Zuckerberg: “Senator, you can already delete any of the data that’s there or delete all of your data.”

Kennedy: “Are you willing to expand my right to prohibit you from sharing my data?”

Zuckerberg: “Senator, again, I believe that you already have that control….”

Kennedy: “Are you willing to give me the right to take my data on Facebook and move it to another social media platform?”

Zuckerberg: “Senator, you can already do that….”

Two points Zuckerberg.

Someone clearly didn’t understand the issue at hand — or Facebook as a whole. It sounded more like my grandparents at a “Learn your IPhone” class at the Apple store. Does Senator Kennedy even have a Facebook account? (Okay, he does but still…)

Now, simplicity is good. It is good to get Zuckerberg to answer these kinds of questions on the record — “define” Facebook and classify it in order to determine how to regulate and set boundaries around the social media monsters.

But as Kevin Roose said in an interview with Michael Barbaro, the whole hearing sounded like a phone call for tech support. Tragic.

US lawmakers are way behind in terms of regulating Internet. We are still operating under the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Think about the Internet during that time — it hardly existed. It was impossible to conceive how the Internet would develop — what kind of monstrosity Facebook would grow into from Zuckerberg’s dorm room.

Understandably, it’s extremely difficult to classify Facebook or any of these other social media giants. Are they newspapers? Websites? Should we regulate these platforms as we would advertisements? But that is what this hearing is for, and our telecommunications laws should be updated to encompass all that the Internet is today. This starts by asking the right questions, which our current Senators are clearly unable to do.

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