Computing Research Policy Blog

The Computing Research Association (or CRA) has been involved in shaping public policy of relevance to computing research for more than two decades. More recently the CRA Government Affairs program has enhanced its efforts to help the members of the computing research community contribute to the public debate knowledgeably and effectively.


In Advance of Facebook Testimony, ACM’s US Public Policy Committee Raises Issues for Congress to Consider


In advance of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg’s three days of appearances before congressional committees starting today, ACM’s US Public Policy Council sent the following letter to the members of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee. It’s a strong statement from USACM, noting the importance of  “understand[ing] how privacy and trust in an era of big data, pervasive networks and socially embedded platforms must be addressed in order to promote the public interest broadly in our society, including specifically the integrity of our democratic institutions.”

Dear Senators Grassley, Thune, Feinstein and Nelson:

ACM, the Association for Computing Machinery, is the world’s largest and oldest association of computing professionals representing approximately 50,000 individuals in the United States and 100,000 worldwide. Its US Public Policy Council (USACM) is charged with providing policy and law makers throughout government with timely, substantive and apolitical input on computing technology and the legal and social issues to which it gives rise.

On behalf of USACM, thank you and the Committees for undertaking a full and public exploration of the causes, scope, consequences and implications of the enormous breaches of privacy and public trust resulting from Facebook’s and outside parties’ use and misuse of vast amounts of Facebook users’ and millions of others’ data. The technical experts we represent – including luminaries in computer science, engineering and other computing disciplines – stand ready to lend their expertise to you and your staffs at any time as the hearing and legislative processes progress.

USACM believes that the issues raised by this incident, and the intense scrutiny now appropriately being brought to bear on it, make this a watershed moment. The issue and challenge is not merely how to address the failings of a single company, but to understand how privacy and trust in an era of big data, pervasive networks and socially embedded platforms must be addressed in order to promote the public interest broadly in our society, including specifically the integrity of our democratic institutions.

As your Committees prepare to convene, USACM offers the following broad observations grounded in our technical understanding and commitment to the highest ethical standards in our professional practice:

  • It is critical to understand the full scale and consequences of how Facebook’s past and present business practices or failures compromised, and may continue to undermine, users’ and others’ privacy and data security. It is also critical, however, to understand the technology underlying its actions and omissions so that truly effective technical and legal means may be designed to assure the protection of privacy by limiting data collection and sharing, ensuring real user consent and notice, and providing full transparency and accountability to its community members. These and other fundamental principles are detailed in USACM’s 2018 Statement on the Importance of Preserving Personal Privacy;
  • The actions and omissions already confirmed or publicly acknowledged to have occurred by Facebook appear to stem from systemic deficiencies in a range of processes considered essential by computing professionals, including proactive risk assessment and management, as well as protecting security and privacy by design;
  • Facebook’s actions and omissions should be measured against all appropriate ethical standards. The first principle of ACM’s long-established Code of Ethics states that, “An essential aim of computing professionals is to minimize negative consequences of computing systems . . . and ensure that the products of their efforts will be used in socially responsible ways.” Adhering to broadly accepted social norms the ethical code also requires that computing professionals “avoid harm to others,” where harm includes injury, negative consequences, or undesirable loss of information or property.
  • The present controversy underscores that we are living in an era of mega-scale data sets and once inconceivable computational power. Consequently, the nature, scale, depth and consequences of the data, technical and ethical breaches understood to have occurred thus far in the Facebook case are unlikely to be confined to a single company, technology or industry. That argues strongly for Congress to comprehensively revisit whether the public interest can adequately be protected by current legal definitions of consent, the present scope of federal enforcement authority, and existing penalties for breach of the public’s privacy and trust on a massive scale; and
  • Size and power are not the only consequential hallmarks of the new information era. Ever more complicated and multiplying synergies between technologies (such as platform architecture, data aggregation, and micro-targeting algorithms) exponentially increase the vulnerability of personal privacy. Similarly increasing complexity in the ways that social media continues to be woven into modern life amplifies the threat. Together these trends make it clear that addressing separate elements of this rapidly changing ecosystem in isolation is no longer a viable means of protecting the public interest. Rather, we urge Congress to consider new and holistic ways of conceptualizing privacy and its protection.

Thank you again for your work at this pivotal time and for formally including this correspondence and the attached Statement in the record of your upcoming hearing. USACM looks forward to assisting you and your staffs in the future. To arrange a technical briefing, or should you have any other questions, please contact ACM’s Director of Global Public Policy, Adam Eisgrau, at 202-580-6555 or eisgrau@acm.org.

Sincerely,

Stuart Shapiro, Chair

cc: Members of the Senate Commerce and Judiciary Committees

In Advance of Facebook Testimony, ACM’s US Public Policy Committee Raises Issues for Congress to Consider