The privacy question Mark Zuckerberg kept dodging

Mark Zuckerberg really wants you to know there’s a button there for you to decide who among your friends and acquaintances sees the pictures, messages, and news articles you share on Facebook. He’s less willing to talk about how or if you can decide what advertisers and marketers see when you log into Facebook in the first place.

The 33-year-old founder, chair, and CEO returned to Congress on Wednesday to answer a variety of questions about Facebook before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Among the numerous items on the agenda were data ownership and access and privacy rights. The Cambridge Analytica scandal has put a focus on data sharing at Facebook.

Lawmakers repeatedly asked whether users control how their data is shared with and used by advertisers, developers, and other third parties. Zuckerberg repeatedly went back to explaining how they can decide what their fellow Facebook users can see.

That didn’t really answer the question. There are two kinds of privacy issues on Facebook: one having to do with what users are sharing with other people, and another with what they’re sharing with advertisers and other third parties by sharing on Facebook at all.

But Zuckerberg continually dodged the question about advertisers by talking about what users are sharing. You want to know what Nordstrom’s seeing so that specific jumpsuit just keeps popping up on your newsfeed? Zuckerberg would rather explain how to keep your boss from seeing your Instagram posts from your “sick day.”

Lawmakers want to know about one thing. Zuckerberg wants to talk about another. On repeat.

“A hundred billion times a day in our services, when people go to share content, they choose who they want to share it with affirmatively,” Zuckerberg told Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) at Tuesday’s Senate hearing.

The question he was responding to was whether Facebook should, by law, have to get user permission to sell or share user data.

“Every time that someone chooses to share something on Facebook, you go to the app, right there it says, ‘Who do you want to share with?’” Zuckerberg told Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) at a hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday.

Barton had asked about what data Facebook shares with third parties about people under the age of 18.

“Every time that a person chooses to share something on Facebook, they’re proactively going to the service and choosing that they want to share a photo, write a message to someone, and every time, there is a control right there, not buried in settings somewhere but right there when they’re posting, about who they’re sharing with,” he told Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL).

The question was about why the onus was on users to opt into Facebook’s privacy and security settings.

Zuckerberg talked about the same thing when Rep. Michael Burgess (R-TX) asked about what’s in Facebook’s terms of service on Wednesday and when on Tuesday Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) asked what sorts of legislative changes he thinks would help solve the problems exposed in the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

“Every piece of content that you share on Facebook, you own and you have complete control over who sees it and — and how you share it, and you can remove it at any time,” Zuckerberg told Hatch. “That’s why every day, about 100 billion times a day, people come to one of our services and either post a photo or send a message to someone, because they know that they have that control and that who they say it’s going to go to is going to be who sees the content.”

We get that. But what’s a lot more opaque is how Facebook is sharing data with marketers, advertisers, and others to help them sell us things, and what developers learn about us when we use Facebook to sign into their apps.

Facebook doesn’t sell your data, but it profits off of you

Zuckerberg clarified on multiple occasions that the company doesn’t sell users’ data. But that’s doesn’t mean it doesn’t profit from it.

Facebook’s business model is, as the executive clarified, that it runs ads, and it does that by letting companies target people based on their information. Facebook allows users to share certain pieces of data, and once that data gets shared, it’s often used for ad targeting. Recode’s Kurt Wagner recently explained how it works:

Facebook also allows outside businesses to collect your data if you give them permission. So if you’ve signed up for, say, Uber using Facebook, Uber now has your information.

Beyond how Facebook profits off of user data, questions also remain about how Cambridge Analytica and potentially other third parties utilized information users thought they were sharing only with Facebook.

Cambridge Analytica got data on potentially 87 million Facebook users obtained by Cambridge University academic Aleksandr Kogan through a personality quiz. The company has since changed its policies on what developers and third parties can access, and developers and third parties aren’t allowed to sell and share data with others.

But as the Cambridge Analytica scandal exemplifies, it has happened in the past, and might still. Zuckerberg on Wednesday admitted his own data had been sold to malicious third parties.

Zuckerberg and Facebook still have a lot of questions to answer. And dodging and responding to things that weren’t asked isn’t helping — especially when Facebook won’t commit to making the most comprehensive data policies the rule instead of the exception.

In an exchange with House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Frank Pallone on Wednesday, Zuckerberg refused to commit to minimizing, “to the greatest extent possible, the collection and use of users’ data.” Zuckerberg said it’s a “complex issue that I think deserves more than a one-word answer.” It also deserves more than that “share with” option Zuckerberg keeps talking about.