Worlds Collide: Silicon Valley vs Capitol Hill

Silicon Valley entered Capitol Hill – sounds strange, doesn’t it? It’s true, though: a month ago, on March 17th, The Guardian and The New York Times reported on data gathered by Cambridge Analytica from millions of Facebook accounts. Users’ personal information (likes, birthdays, locations) were harvested for use towards the 2016 US presidential campaign; the estimated number of users affected stands at 87 million. Fast forward to just a few days ago: Mark Zuckerberg sat before the Senate to testify about Facebook users’ privacy concerns, repeating his company’s humble roots as a Harvard dorm room startup and fronting questions about Facebook’s business model and security policies.

We’ve previously talked about the necessity for users to be aware of how their data is handled by technology companies, especially social media applications, but Zuckerberg’s testimony brings concerns about the future of large tech companies, more so than that of users. Many of these companies, similar to Facebook, rely on data collection to create targeted ads and generate revenue.

Wariness towards tech companies was apparent immediately after the breach was reported. Facebook’s stock dropped steadily after the Cambridge Analytica announcement in mid-March, and it reached its lowest price at the end of March. Since then, however, it has risen up following Zuckerberg’s testimony on Tuesday; in fact, Zuckerberg became richer by $3 billion as he sat answering questions posed by Congress. This upward trend indicates that investors, at the least, were impressed by Zuckerberg’s performance and possibly feel positive about Facebook’s outlook, but how so? With such ample criticism facing the social media giant, investors’ confidence in Facebook seems challenging to decipher.

A plausible reason is the government’s attitude towards regulation of tech companies. Zuckerberg’s testimony revealed the Congressmen’s unfamiliarity with the tech world, a clear disadvantage if they plan on crafting rules to regulate the tech space. At one point, Zuckerberg was asked by Senator Orrin Hatch how Facebook creates profit if their platform is provided free to users; Zuckerberg responded, “Senator, we run ads,” a slight smirk punctuating his response. Such responses, and many more, easily became points of ridicule towards Congressmen, circulated ironically through Facebook and other social media sites.

With Silicon Valley continually innovating, playing with big data and artificial intelligence, the plausibility of another Cambridge Analytica breach is likely. Despite this threat, Washington DC cannot be farther away, both in geography and understanding, of novel technology developments. In the capital, there exists an aversion to technology, with government officials often using outdated monitors and papers scattered around offices. The US Chief Technology Officer, a permanent position created by former President Obama, lies vacant, and there are few, if any, technology policy experts left in the White House.  

If the breach did not have political implications, would Congress have acted? Likely not, because data collection and distribution are not recently developed tools employed by tech companies. For years, the Silicon Valley have acted as their own government, as their own gods, even though it was inevitable that users’ privacy would be violated. Though not to discredit the amazing achievements and contributions from the tech industry, regulation and oversight of these tech companies is much needed to better protect citizens’ rights. Without Congress attracting new minds that comprehend the technology at hand, tech companies will simply continue what they have regularly done. Thus, investors were right to remain confident.

Though it has been a long week from facing off with Congress, Mark Zuckerberg will soon be back in the Valley; he’ll take off his suit and slip back into his iconic gray hoodie. Facebook, along with the rest of the Silicon Valley, will resume as before, churning out fantastic, yet dangerous, products, separate from all the partisan conflict of Capital Hill and certainly without a single bat of Congress’ eyes - at least for now.