Jun 6, 2018 - Technology

Facebook playing with fire in D.C.


Photo: Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Mark Zuckerberg survived questions about Russia's election-meddling largely unscathed. But the N.Y. Times' revelation that Facebook knowingly granted four Chinese electronics companies (including Huawei, which U.S. intelligence officials see as a potential national security threat) access to Americans’ data — and didn't bother to tell Congress about it — has Washington fuming again. 

Why it matters: Facebook's business depends on trust — both from users, who give up their data, and from Washington, with Big Tech hoping for a light touch on regulation. The new discoveries pose a risk to both.

  • Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chair Mark Warner (D-Va.), who has been working closely with tech companies in the Russia investigation, told me onstage yesterday at an Axios event: "Facebook ... is a great company, but we're seeing this pattern repeated."
  • Warner added: "They've got some folks that know politics ... They should realize: Come clean with the whole story in the first 24 hours. Don't let this dribble out. And I've got some very serious questions, particularly because of the ongoing threat that these Chinese telecom companies pose."

The new revelations show just how little Facebook and D.C. still understand about the way the other works, Axios chief tech correspondent Ina Fried writes:

  • What D.C. doesn't get: The partnerships Facebook had with phone makers were pretty standard at the time, as phone makers looked to build support for services from Facebook, Twitter, Google and others into their devices. Nor were they a secret.
  • What Facebook doesn't get: The company has very little credibility in D.C., especially when the topic is sharing data with others. Throw Huawei's name in the mix and things go from toxic to radioactive.

Be smart: The risk to Facebook and other tech giants has never been swift, sweeping regulation. It’s been that the arc of regulation bends to inevitable, because of a series of serious mind-changing revelations over time.

  • That’s why the drip-drip-drip matters. 

What Facebook says ... Francisco Varela, V.P. of mobile partnerships: “Huawei is the third largest mobile manufacturer globally and its devices are used by people all around the world, including in the United States. Facebook along with many other U.S. tech companies have worked with them and other Chinese manufacturers to integrate their services onto these phones."

  • "Facebook's integrations with Huawei, Lenovo, OPPO and TCL were controlled from the get go — and we approved the Facebook experiences these companies built. Given the interest from Congress, we wanted to make clear that all the information from these integrations with Huawei was stored on the device, not on Huawei's servers.” 
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