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Sen. Richard Blumenthal Weighs In On How Congress Could Regulate Facebook


We're now going to turn to Senator Richard Blumenthal. He's a Democrat from Connecticut and a member of the Senate judiciary and commerce committees, two committees that are looking into Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. Senator Blumenthal, welcome.

RICHARD BLUMENTHAL: Thanks so much for having me.

CHANG: First, let me ask you for your reaction to Mark Zuckerberg's statement today. Did it satisfy you?

BLUMENTHAL: In no way did it satisfy me.

CHANG: Why not?

BLUMENTHAL: I think that they deserve to be credited with some first steps. But they are only first steps. In effect, they're doing damage control. They're addressing the latest bad publicity. And what they have done essentially is to continue with the attitude, trust us; we know better. Yes, we're selling your personal information, but we can do it without your explicit consent, even without your knowledge. So I am far from satisfied that these very vague and overarching commitments will satisfy their users and consumers either.

CHANG: You have called on Mark Zuckerberg to take questions under oath before Congress. Are you still going to push for him to appear? It sounds like you still have lots of questions then.

BLUMENTHAL: This very superficial mea culpa makes even more necessary his appearing before the committee. It is unspecific. He has to be questioned, perhaps under oath. Documents need to be subpoenaed. We need to know how Facebook is going to really protect privacy if it continues with the present business model of selling personal information.

There is a dilemma here unless Facebook is informing people about what access there will be to that personal information and enabling them to opt out, explicitly opt out. In fact, they should be given the opportunity to decline to opt in. And this kind of consumer right ought to be the subject of questioning before a congressional committee - I think likely the commerce committee, where I sit.

CHANG: I want to zoom out a little bit because you're - you talk about Facebook's - you know, how it has access to all this user data. And a lot of what it does is - a lot of its ability or what makes it appealing to outside parties is its ability to share that data. Something I'm genuinely curious about is, you know, data mining and microtargeting on social media were tools that both the Obama and Clinton campaigns spent millions of dollars on. They were very proud of how technologically advanced their work was. What makes this situation with Cambridge Analytica and the Trump campaign so different from what the Clinton and Obama campaigns did?

BLUMENTHAL: Well, focusing, first of all, on Facebook, it's under a consent decree, a 2011 order from the Federal Trade Commission to protect consumer privacy. And so there is a clear need for the FTC to investigate and likely take action. And I'm going to be calling on the FTC to move forward. Second, what is different here is that Facebook bears a responsibility to safeguard privacy. It has a trust and probably a legal as well as moral obligation. That's different from a political campaign that can buy information from Facebook assuming that the users and consumers know what kind of access that campaign is going to have.

Here Cambridge Analytica apparently deliberately deceived Facebook - again, unlike those campaigns, which bought the information but not deceptively - and said in effect it was doing nothing of the kind that eventually Facebook learned that it was doing. But then even after Facebook learned in 2015, it failed to validate or verify that in fact all of this 50 million consumer information had been eliminated.

CHANG: But how...

BLUMENTHAL: And that lack of due care is really an important failing here.

CHANG: I guess my question is, what can Congress do? I mean, so much of the business models of Facebook and other tech companies revolve around what they can do with user data, their ability to share user data. Can you - you can't just transform those business models, can you?

BLUMENTHAL: The business models need not be the problem. It's the rules for those business models as to how privacy is protected. Information is made available all the time to marketing firms as well as retailers. And there are rules that apply to how that information is used and how products are marketed to them and the opt-out...


BLUMENTHAL: ...And opt-in consent mechanisms. So...


BLUMENTHAL: ...I think Congress has a responsibility for making rules and overseeing them.

CHANG: All right, Senator Richard Blumenthal is a Democrat from Connecticut. Thanks very much for joining us.

BLUMENTHAL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.