Jonathan Zittrain Talks with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg About Privacy

By TAP Staff Blogger

Posted on February 26, 2019


Early this month, Harvard cyber and international law professor Jonathan Zittrain talked with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg about privacy, autonomy, and information fiduciaries. The nearly two-hour discussion was part of a series of study sessions for Harvard’s Techtopia initiative, a program for exploring problems in technology and governance.


During the conversation, Professor Zittrain asked Mr. Zuckerberg questions about Facebook’s handling of its users’ privacy; the pros and cons of encryption; and, whether Facebook should reveal to users how much advertising revenue their data generates. Below are a few excerpts from the discussion, thanks to an article by Harvard Law Today, “Zittrain and Zuckerberg Discuss Encryption, ‘Information Fiduciaries’ and Targeted Advertisements”.


Information Fiduciaries


Zittrain launched the conversation at HLS by raising the question of whether Facebook and other data-hungry internet companies should become “information fiduciaries.” Developed with Yale Law Professor Jack Balkin, the concept involves making such companies abide by a duty of loyalty to their users when handling sensitive data–including putting the user’s interests in front of profits–much the same way a lawyer or doctor must protect a client’s confidentiality.


“The idea of us having a fiduciary relationship with the people who use our services is intuitive,” said Zuckerberg. “[Facebook’s] own self-image of ourselves and what we’re doing is that we’re acting as fiduciaries and trying to build services for people. … Where this gets interesting is who gets to decide in the legal sense, or in the policy sense, of what’s in people’s best interest.”


For more information about the proposal of “information fiduciaries” by Professor Zittrain and Yale Law Professor Jack Balkin, read the TAP blog, “Jonathan Zittrain and Jack Balkin Propose Information Fiduciaries to Protect Individual Privacy Rights.”


Facebook Advertising and the Value of User Data


“I imagine it might be possible,” Zittrain ventured, “to issue me a score of how much I’ve earned for Facebook this year. It could simply say ‘this is how much we collected on the basis of you in particular being exposed to an ad…’” Zittrain expanded that such a number might provide the basis for an informed conversation about an ad-free Facebook subscription model.


Zuckerberg argued that offering users different monetization models would mean offering them different data-handling models. “Are we going to let people pay to have different controls on data use than other people? And my answer to that is a hard no.” He described a forthcoming tool called “Clear History” which would allow users to clear some of the data that Facebook accumulates about them for ad targeting purposes.


Zittrain pointed out that “there’s a little paradox lingering in there. [Control over data] is something so important and vital that we wouldn’t want to deprive anybody of access to it, but therefore nobody gets it… in other words if I could buy my way out of ads and data collection it wouldn’t be fair to those who can’t, and therefore we all subsist with it until the advances you’re talking about.”


Fact-Checking Content


Zittrain, who directs the Harvard Law School Library, proposed an idea for validating content through a virtually convened panel of librarians that could be set up to fact-check content flagged by members of the community similar to the role they play as reference librarians.


“Librarians live for questions like that,” said Zittrain. “They have a notion of patron duty that says, I may disapprove of you even studying this, but I’m here to serve you the user and I just think you should know this is why maybe it’s not a good source.” And, Zittrain added, there could be high school students who apprentice for credit to develop the next generation of fact-checkers.


Zuckerberg raised the company’s proposal for an external review board that could weigh in on content questions and appeals and provide binding decisions on hard issues. “You know we make a lot of decisions around content enforcement and what stays up and what comes down,” he said. “Having gone through this process over the last few years of working on this system, one of the themes that I feel really strongly about is that we shouldn’t be making so many of these decisions ourselves.”


Read the full article: “Zittrain and Zuckerberg Discuss Encryption, ‘Information Fiduciaries’ and Targeted Advertisements.”


Watch the video of the conversation: