“Do you have a profile on me?”
That was Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) to Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch, in a moment that seemed to stretch out to an hour during Tuesday afternoon’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Russian election interference on social media.
Facebook, Twitter and Google all sent their lawyers to answer lawmakers’ questions, but Kennedy, who began his question round by complimenting Stretch’s resume, was prepared. In just a few minutes, he forced Stretch to admit that Facebook had far less insight into its advertisers than it did into each individual user.
“Mr. Stretch, how many advertisers does Facebook have?” Kennedy asked sleepily, after thanking the three tech giants for being American companies.
“We have approximately 5 million advertisers on a monthly basis, Senator,” Stretch replied.
“Did China run ads in the last election cycle? That tried to impact our election?” Kennedy asked.
“Not that I’m aware of, senator,” Stretch answered.
“Not that you’re aware of. Did Turkmenistan?”
Kennedy asked about ads from Turkmenistan and from North Korea, each time getting a variation of “I’m not aware” in response.
“How could you be aware?” Kennedy eventually snapped. “I mean, this is—this—you’ve got 5 million advertisers? And you’re going to tell me that you’re able to trace the origin of all of those advertisements? If I want to hire a lawyer, if I wanted to hire you when you were in private practice, you have an incredible resume, and say, let’s go through about four shell corporations. I want to go through four or five shell corporations, because I want to hide my identity. You’re telling me you have the ability to go—to trace through all of these corporations and find the true identity of every one of your advertisers. You’re not telling me that, are you?”
After a little more back-and-forth, Stretch, exasperated, caved.
“To your question about seeing essentially behind the platform to understand if there are shell corporations, of course the answer is no,” he said. “We cannot see behind the activity.”
Kennedy then appeared to switch gears. Were he to join Facebook as an advertiser, he would need to buy targeted advertising, he told Stretch, “and you can help me narrow down. Because that’s your business model. You collect data, and lease it out to companies who use that data to sell people products, services and candidates. Isn’t that basically your business model?”
Stretch seemed to sense what was coming. “Senator, we do provide targeted advertising. We don’t actually share the data of individuals with advertisers,” he said.
“Right,” Kennedy replied. “Do you have a profile on me?”
After a beat Stretch replied: “Senator, if you’re a Facebook user, we would permit you to be targeted with an advertisement based on your characteristics and your likes, along with other people who share similar characteristics.”
That raised an even less comfortable question from Kennedy, who proposed, “Let’s suppose your CEO came to you—not you, but somebody who could do it in your company. Maybe you could. And said, ‘I want to know everything we can find out about Sen. Graham. I want to know the movies he likes, I want to know the bars he goes to. I want to know who his friends are. I want to know what schools he goes—went to.’ You could do that, couldn’t you?”
Stretch said Facebook could not know those things, which Kennedy wasn’t buying.
“You can’t put a name to a face to a piece of data?” Kennedy asked. “You’re telling me that?”
“We have designed our systems to prevent exactly that, to protect the privacy of our users,” Stretch replied.
“I understand,” Kennedy said. “But you can get around that to find that identity, can’t you?”
Stretch dropped the “we” for his next answer: “No, senator. I cannot.”