Zuckerberg testimony tees up urgent questions about Internet giants and how we interact with them

The tumult in Washington over Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s two days of testimony before Congress is the best opportunity yet for all of us to re-examine our relationships with the Internet giants that exert enormous influence in our society. Facebook as well as Google and the vast number of other companies that trade free services for access to our private information, now occupy a central place in too much of our daily lives.

The result is that we’ve turned over enormous troves of information that these firms repackage and sell to third parties eager to influence our purchases and what we think about politics, culture and a variety of other issues.

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What should be clear now is just how easy it has been for bad actors to exploit Facebook and other platforms. And what should also be clear after the hearings is just how little care social media giants have taken to construct products that are difficult for bad actors to exploit. Or as Zuckerberg admits, Facebook didn’t do enough to guard against downstream consequences.

“The big mistake that we’ve made looking back on this is viewing our responsibility as just building tools, rather than viewing our whole responsibility as making sure that those tools are used for good,” Zuckerberg said in an answer to a question from Sen. John Cornyn of Texas.

The hearings raised other concerns beyond privacy. As most Facebook users will attest, the site can be addictive. Is it dangerous for so many Americans to use social media to filter their news and even how they interact with society?

Should Facebook make it easy to identify all users who post political messages? Are there limits that should be placed on the way automated accounts, or bots, interact with real users, given how they push divisive messages to large audiences?

Have Silicon Valley giants been allowed to too easily scoop up would-be competitors — firms that might have created new business models with better privacy protections? Can it be made easier for users to download or even delete the data they give these firms? Should it be easier to rescind privacy permissions?

But even as the hearings teed up such questions, it should also be clear there are a few things the rest of us need to confront about ourselves.

It seems clear that social media has played a large role in coarsening our political discourse. We can blame the companies for building infrastructure that encouraged that behavior. But within all of us is the capacity to change the way we use these services, and to stand up for civility.

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Were we to resolve to do that, then the moment of reflection these hearings have engendered will have lasting effects no matter what Congress or the companies do now.

— The Dallas Morning News