Facebook promises to back US privacy regulation

A candid shot of Mark Zuckerberg in a private moment.

Drew Angerer / Techhnews

Facebook has spent a huge chunk of this year trying to prove it takes privacy seriously. But this might be its biggest show of commitment yet.

Erin Egan, the tech giant’s chief privacy officer, on Wednesday said the company would unreservedly back comprehensive federal privacy regulation in the US. She was speaking at a privacy conference at the European Parliament in Brussels.

“We support strong and effective privacy legislation in the United States and around the world,” said Egan. “We recognize the value of regulation of privacy.”

Members of Congress have shown interest in moving toward a federal law governing consumer privacy. In testimony last month, representatives of AT&T, Amazon, Google, Twitter, Apple and Charter Communications told lawmakers how they collect data and how regulation, if it comes to that, should play out.

Over the past year Facebook has weathered a number of storms involving customer data, including the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which the company was found to have granted third parties access to the data of tens of millions of users. After the scandal broke, Facebook was keen to prove to its users that it was taking steps to remedy its policies and prevent similar situations from arising. It also now appears to endorse government regulation of its privacy practices.

Mark Zuckerberg: ‘Trust us’

But Egan’s support for regulation was not reiterated by the company’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, who also spoke at the conference on Wednesday, but via video message. Zuckerberg largely repeated messages he’s put out already this year — about steps the company is taking to improve its privacy and transparency, and about the need for Facebook to remain ad-supported because it’s what users prefer.

Mentioning scenarios such as needing to work with law enforcement, Zuckerberg was keen to emphasize the gray areas of privacy that the company has to consider. “Our responsibilities sometimes pull us in opposite directions,” he said. “We also have to look ahead for any unintended consequences and take action on them too.”

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Facebook was mentioned in almost every session throughout the day at the conference, with the Cambridge Analytica scandal referenced frequently as an example of a privacy failure. A big screen in the European Parliament chamber showed tweets from users disgruntled that Zuckerberg did not appear in person, as Apple CEO Tim Cook did earlier in the day.

Cook also called for privacy regulation in the US, but unlike Zuckerberg, he was unequivocal about the need to never compromise when it comes to protecting customer data. He also issued a warning about companies that expressed support for regulation in public, but resisted it behind closed doors. There has long been pressure on Apple to bend its values and share information, but the company refuses to trade the “precious cargo” that is customer data, he said.

Zuckerberg, in his speech, told the conference that the company takes “incredibly seriously” its responsibility to do the right thing when it comes to privacy and ensuring users have the best experience. “You do need to trust us,” he said.

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