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As so often in the past, Mark Zuckerberg found himself apologizing last week. Testifying before Congress, he offered hours of penitence and self-reflection. "I'm sorry," he said. "I'm committed to getting it right."

And just what would getting it right entail?

In questioning Zuckerberg, the assembled members of Congress voiced a long series of abstract anxieties--about data collection and fair competition, privacy and polarization, hate speech and fake news, about the whole maddening frenzy of online life. What all these concerns have in common is that they result from a simple trade-off at the heart of the digital economy: exchanging data for services.

Facebook has capitalized on this bargain more than most. It has developed sophisticated tools to engage users, track them, collect their most intimate data, and show them highly targeted advertising. It's a great success. The problem is that Facebook has never been entirely forthcoming about the arrangement. Its users don't clearly understand the trade-offs they're making.

Yet questionable advertisers and outright scammers understand all too well: As one marketer put it, "They go out and find the morons for me."

All that is bad enough. But the data-for-services arrangement has other pernicious side effects. Those vaunted tools of engagement, for example, can also encourage filter bubbles and fake news. That powerful advertising engine may be worsening polarization.

What the congressional committees seemed to be searching for was a way to separate the benefits of this trade-off from its drawbacks. That won't be easy; it may not even be possible. But in trying to grapple with these problems, Washington should keep two principles in mind.

One is that the digital economy would benefit from more price transparency.

A second challenge is how to ensure that companies collect data responsibly without killing their business models. One possibility--aired briefly in Tuesday's hearing--is to treat online service providers as "information fiduciaries," with legal duties to protect sensitive information much the way a doctor or lawyer must. With proper incentives in place, this could prevent companies from using data in unexpected or harmful ways. It could also help ensure that companies don't facilitate discrimination against protected groups, and expose them to liability if they do.

None of these reforms would necessarily "get it right." But as Congress considers its options, the goal should be making the data-for-services bargain fairer and more transparent. Facebook's goal should be avoiding more apology tours. And the public should remember that, even on the Internet, there's no such thing as a free lunch.

Editorial on 04/14/2018

Print Headline: A grilling is not a fix

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