|Sven Hoppe/picture alliance via Getty Images via businessinsider.com.au
If there was ever a need for the government to step in and smack down the big tech platforms for blatant violations of basic constitutional protections, it’s now, especially after revelations regarding a tool used by Facebook that were revealed at a Senate hearing this week.
Missouri GOP Sen. Josh Hawley has been a mountain lion when it comes to holding big tech platforms accountable for their massive, regular violations of users’ privacy. From Google tracking users across all the internet to be able to target them with ads to sites like Twitter and others gathering and then marketing email addresses, Hawley has regularly exposed the tech giants for their misdeeds.
On Tuesday, the titans of big tech were made to answer questions about election interference — that is, censoring President Donald Trump, the New York Post over its Hunter Biden bombshells, and limiting the reach of conservative voices ahead of the election. And during questioning of Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Hawley dropped another bombshell.
Namely, that Facebook deploys a tool that also tracks users even when they’re not on Facebook. As he opened his inquiry, Hawley said that a former Facebook employee “with direct knowledge of the company’s content moderation practices” got in touch with his Senate office about an “internal platform called Tasks that Facebook uses to coordinate projects, including censorship.”
"The platform reflects censorship input from Google and Twitter, as well," Hawley said. "...Facebook censorship teams communicate with their counterparts at Twitter and Google and then enter those companies' suggestions for censorship onto the Task platform so that Facebook can follow up with them and effectively coordinate their censorship efforts.”
Zuckerberg claimed that Facebook utilizes the Task system for “people coordinating all kinds of work across the company.” He added later that the company did "coordinate on and share signals on security-related topics," such as "a terrorist attack or around child exploitation imagery or around a foreign government creating an influence operation.”
He then asked Zuckerberg if Facebook, Twitter, and Google employees worked to coordinate their content moderation decisions regarding “individuals, websites, hashtags [or] phrases to ban.” “Senator, we do not coordinate our policies," Zuckerberg responded, adding that he "would expect that some level of communication.” Hawley then asked about the alleged tracking program, Centra. “Mr. Zuckerberg, tell me about ‘Centra,’”
Hawley said. “What is the Facebook internal tool called Centra?” “Senator, I’m not aware of any tool with that name,” the Zuck responded. Hawley answered by putting up photos he said showed the tool in use. “Let me see if this refreshes your memory.
There is a demonstrative over my shoulder,” Hawley noted. “Centra is a tool that Facebook uses to track its users not just on Facebook, but across the entire internet. Centra tracks different profiles that a user visits, their message recipients, their linked accounts, the pages they visit around the Web that have Facebook buttons. Centra also uses behavioral data to monitor users’ accounts, even if those accounts are registered under a different name.”
Mediaite added: Hawley said the program allowed Facebook to retain certain sensitive personal information, including which accounts users had visited and the photos they had uploaded. The company has received unwanted attention on numerous occasions over the last several years for going to unusual lengths to track not only its users, but associates of its users who do not use the website. One recent example included the 2018 revelation that Facebook “marks” photos its users upload in order to continue tracking them outside the platform. However, Hawley suggested the program may go even further than reports have revealed, and suggested the program may be used to take enforcement measures.
“How many accounts in the United States have been subject to review and shut down through Centra?” Hawley pressed. https://twitter.com/HawleyMO/status/1328763930223796224 As usual, Zuckerberg played the stooge and claimed not to know much of anything about the privacy-busting tool. But Hawley wasn’t having any of it.
“I’m sure that we have tools that help us with our platform and community integrity work, but I am not familiar with that name,” Zuckerberg claimed. “Do you have a tool that does exactly what I described…or are you saying that it doesn’t exist?”
Hawley pressed. “Senator, I’m saying that I’m not familiar with it, and that I’d be happy to follow up and, and, get you and your team the information that you would like on this, but I, I, I’m limited in what I can, uh, what I am familiar with and can share today,” the CEO stammered.
“It’s always amazing to me, Mr. Chairman, how many people before this committee suddenly develop amnesia. Maybe it is something about the air in the room,” Hawley responded, mockingly. Yes, isn’t it, though? The problem now, however, is the same as it’s always been: What is anyone going to do about it? We’re not for censorship and we certainly are not for deplatforming people from social media. But this is different: These are constitutional violations of expectations of privacy and that is legally actionable. So — will our government act?