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Policy / DCN perspectives on policy, law, and legislative news surrounding digital content

Want to clean up Facebook? Don’t listen to Menlo Park

February 19, 2020 | By Chris Pedigo, SVP Government Affairs – DCN @Pedigo_Chris

Mark Zuckerberg is reportedly “begging to be regulated.” He has made several statements to that effect, suggesting that he supports state-backed regulation in four areas: elections, political discourse, privacy, and data portability. This week, Facebook released a white paper that outlines the company’s suggested path forward for content regulation. It does little to drive forward meaningful discussion around these serious issues. Instead, it clearly illustrates that Facebook would like to eschew responsibility for some of its profoundly negative effects in these areas while protecting its ability to continue business as usual in others.

As Zuckerberg put it in a recent op-ed, “regulation could set baselines for what’s prohibited and require companies to build systems for keeping harmful content to a bare minimum.” That said, Facebook’s plan suggests that companies like his should be required to have procedures for taking down offensive or illegal posts and to prepare quarterly reports on their efforts. If this isn’t the absolute bare minimum, I don’t know what is.

Clicky content

It is interesting that Facebook’s paper cites the European Convention on Human Rights which supports the needs of governments to regulate speech for “[T]he interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals…”

Some have argued that Facebook’s algorithms and data targeting capabilities, the same tools which have been refined and optimized for immense profits, actually encourage these sorts of activities. The argument goes like this: The algorithms promote content that gets clicks. The content that gets the most clicks is often salacious (yes, even to the point of being false) or highly targeted based on consumer data.

In this way, drug dealers target members of addict recovery groups, for example. Or false stories that reinforce specific bias, racism, or extremist views are targeted at specific individuals. Of course, those Facebook functions would remain very lightly regulated under the company’s proposal.

Competitive advantages

In his op-ed, Zuckerberg said he believes that “good regulation may hurt Facebook’s business in the near term but it will be better for everyone, including us, over the long term.” However, Facebook’s proposal clearly brings with it the added benefit (for Facebook) that the suggested regulations would build barriers and add compliance costs that entrenched companies are best equipped to overcome. It’s already a daunting challenge for a start-up social media company to break through in the current marketplace. This proposal would only increase that burden.

In what is quite possibly the icing on Zuckerberg’s cake, the proposal would grant global immunity to big tech platforms to carry out content moderation policies, which could also be used to shut out competitive services on their platforms. The proposal would essentially reinforce Section 230 of the U.S. Communications Decency Act globally, so that Facebook could claim legal protection for removing offensive posts and adjusting algorithms to disadvantage repeat offenders.

The last thing the world needs exported from America is blanket liability protection for Facebook. But Zuckerberg’s proposed immunity is intentionally broad to allow for all kinds of activity under a content moderation policy, including favoring its own services or certain business partners over others.

Anti-competitive landscaping

Facebook’s proposal includes an entire section about how – even with the proposed content moderation – enforcement of any guidelines will not only be a challenge; it will be imperfect.

Imagine if Instagram were still a separate company. Do you think Zuckerberg would be talking about how it’s too hard to scrub racist and sexist content from the service? Do you think he would offer only muddled, hazy responses about whether foreign governments manipulated his service to impact elections? Do you think he would be complaining that it’s hard to prevent drug dealers from targeting recovering addicts? No. He would be taking aggressive action to clean it up.

In fact, there is documented evidence that Facebook cared a lot more about these issues when they had competition. Acquiring WhatsApp and Instagram were likely a cheaper alternative to changing Facebook’s underlying and unhealthy business. Zuckerberg’s calculation could have been that turning his back on the public’s welfare was more acceptable than turning his back on shareholders.

The compliance question

As Facebook’s own report puts it, “Designed poorly, these efforts may stifle expression, slow innovation, and create the wrong incentives for platforms.” And Zuckerberg should know.  

While Zuckerberg calls for “regulation,” it’s important to consider Facebook’s track record of complying with existing regulations. Their approach to the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is disingenuous and sometimes misleading. In California, which recently rolled out the CCPA, Facebook is making case the that they don’t “sell” consumer data even under California’s very broad definition.

And that’s the point: Facebook is a for-profit company with responsibility only to its shareholders. Zuckerberg isn’t offering a real plan for regulation that will benefit society and democracy. He’s offering a plan to minimize the obligations and responsibility for Facebook. And this is why the best perspectives on how to clean up the mess that is Facebook are coming from outside of Menlo Park.