Opinion From a Gen Z: Facebook, Congress and the Generation Gap

Opinion: Lawmakers failed to take advantage of their opportunity

It’s probable that regulation will be necessary at some point to address the real issue
izanbar/iStock

The recent Facebook congressional hearings felt similar to trying to explain to my grandmother that she doesn’t need to share my profile picture on Facebook and write, “Look at my beautiful granddaughter!” Jeez, Grandma: You can just like it.

While memes of out-of-touch senators and op-eds from baby boomers to millennials expressing their opinions about privacy in the digital age are everywhere, it seems like we’re missing the opinions of those who were born in the digital age and grew up with social media: Generation Z.

Born in 1995, I belong to Gen Z, which means I am a part of a generation of which 88 percent of us are active on at least one social media site on a daily basis. We spend an average of 10 hours per day online, and 40 percent of us say that access to Wi-Fi is more important than working bathrooms. 91 percent of us have our digital devices with us in bed in the evening. 85 percent … OK, you get the point.

We are the most web-savvy, application-obsessed generation, yet no one seems to care about what we think. Why is that?

While watching the recent House and Senate Committee hearings on social media privacy, I couldn’t help but cringe every time a representative or senator asked what I felt was an obvious or misinformed question. All I could think was that we are seeking a solution to a highly complex 21st century problem from a generation of people who may not be the most technologically adept.

I recently started working in the tech space, so I’m sympathetic to the challenges that come with the industry’s rapid evolution and complexity. But at the end of the day, can a congress that hasn’t the vaguest idea how these apps function fix a problem they don’t understand?

Questions that missed the mark

Overall, when it comes to the issues we face in digital data and privacy, federal lawmakers barely grazed the tip of the iceberg. There is no doubt in my mind that Congress was well-intentioned. But, let’s face it: Many representatives and senators are in their 70s and 80s and simply do not have the expertise or experience to address one of the toughest questions in the history of technology.

Rather than get into the nitty gritty of Facebook’s data transparency issues, some of our elected leaders hit CEO Mark Zuckerberg with questions that indicated a complete lack of understanding of the subject matter and the problem that they claimed was the purpose of the hearings. We’re talking about everything under the sun, from, “Why are chocolate advertisers stalking me?” to, “So, how do you sustain a business model in which users don’t pay for your service?” (Hint: It’s ads).

Even Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), who happens to be only 45, wanted to know, “If I’m emailing within WhatsApp … does that inform your advertisers?” Ugh, no. “I can’t listen to this anymore” is what I felt as my head dropped into my hands. It was shocking to me that Congress was completely unaware that WhatsApp is not an email platform.

In a misguided attempt to essentially call Zuckerberg a data privacy hypocrite, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) asked, “Would you be comfortable sharing with us the name of the hotel you stayed in last night?” He continues, “If you’ve messaged anybody this week, would you share with us the names of the people you’ve messaged?”

“Senator, no, I would probably not choose to do that publicly here,” Zuckerberg responded.

Durbin tried to compare Zuckerberg’s disclosure of his housing accommodations on national television in front of millions of people to the data Facebook acquires and accumulates on its users. He neglected to understand that personal information on Facebook is provided by the user, who controls the level of visibility of that information.