Mark Zuckerberg took a major new step over the weekend, issuing a blunt call for government intervention to set rules for the internet – and Facebook. “I believe we need new regulation in four areas: harmful content, election integrity, privacy and data portability,” he wrote in a Washington Post op-ed.
This is a sea change, and historic, even if far too late, considering the panoply of harms that have flowed not just from an unregulated internet, but specifically from a hapless and ill-governed Facebook in recent years.
Yet, speaking as someone who has criticized the company harshly in recent years, Facebook’s CEO deserves substantial credit for finally and clearly acknowledging that the respective roles of government and net platforms have to change.
I firmly believe that only some new kind of public-private partnership, which probably, in the end, goes far beyond conventional “regulation,” will enable the world to cope with the size and power of net platforms like Facebook. Zuckerberg, in his note, does not really say how the regulations he wants ought to be implemented.
And he does not address, except obliquely, the biggest problem. It is that Facebook (like Google, Amazon, and a few other giants) is irrevocably global, and regulation up until now has been almost entirely national. He does say, regarding privacy, that it would be valuable for more countries to adopt legislation that harmonizes with the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), and he makes a vague plea for “a common global framework.”
Getting to this point for Zuckerberg was clearly painful. I do believe he means what he says, but his next actions will determine how meaningful is his change of stance. I am grateful, though, that for once in making a major statement, he did not write a multi-thousand-word tome. Too often he has filibustered to the point that his true intent became mostly obscured. Perhaps in this, and in so directly confronting the need for government action, he is actually benefitting by having a former British deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, as his relatively new communications chief.
Meanwhile, he faces structural challenges that will make true reform difficult, regardless of laws and global norms. Many observers believe the very nature of Facebook’s business – selling targeted ads based on personal data – makes it inevitable that harmful content will remain a serious problem. People click on sensational stuff, and Facebook rewards the content that gets clicks, so it gets more page views and more places to position advertising. That is the way the system works. That also complicates the challenge of maintaining electoral integrity, since so much fake and misleading content is used worldwide on social platforms to sway elections and confuse voters.
Much of what Zuckerberg writes in his essay ought to have been said 4-5 years ago, at least. Why so much damage had to get done in the interim is a mystery that remains to be explained. A truly contrite and constructive Zuckerberg would help us all understand what went wrong so we could collectively better work to prevent its continuance. That goes beyond regulation.
Knowing how idealistic some of the roots of this company were (I wrote a book about it 9 years ago), I have been astonished at Facebook’s repeated clumsiness, and naivete, even as it pulled in unprecedented profits—more than any company its size. Until recently, when it began spending more on remediating harms, Facebook was earning 43% or so net margins, after tax. No other large company makes so much money on each dollar of revenue.
A cynic—which I’m trying hard not to be in the face of this generally welcome new development—would argue that much of what Zuckerberg calls for in his note is protective for him, and his company. If governments have clear rules, and Facebook technically abides by them, it cannot be criticized for not having its own well-enforced rules, as it so often has been in recent years. Many have said that in recent days.
As a 13-year observer of this company, I find some of Zuckerberg’s specific statements particularly noteworthy. In his Washington Post note, he wrote: “Lawmakers often tell me we have too much power over speech, and frankly I agree. I’ve come to believe that we shouldn’t make so many important decisions about speech on our own.”
Of course, he’s right. But why should it have taken so long? Why was it hard for anyone, especially someone as brilliant as Zuckerberg, to see long ago that no company ought to try to police speech globally? The company’s rules for what can and cannot be said have shifted continually, precisely because no company can sufficiently determine or anticipate all the ways people will seek to manipulate. Just this week, for example, Facebook tightened its restrictions against white supremacist rhetoric.
He says “third-party bodies” should set the standards on hate speech and other unacceptable content, and companies like his should then enforce them. Governments, of course, won’t be much better than companies at anticipating harms, but we do need companies and governments to work hand in hand. The problem again comes down to which governments, and how to manage the reality that this is a global context. That’s why I like the idea of “third-party bodies.” We need new mechanisms, trans-national ones, that do not exist. They must go beyond governments, and be truly global, somehow. It may seem difficult to imagine, but then who could have imagined the emergence of a company as powerful as Facebook?
I applaud Zuckerberg when he says, “We should have a broader debate about what we want as a society and how regulation can help.” This is a basic and foundational statement, but one not yet well accepted. It’s only beginning to bubble up in American political debates. I hope that him saying it will lead others to chime in and help that debate to proceed, in the U.S., at the UN, and around the world.
Global internet platforms run by companies more powerful than many countries should only be allowed to operate with the consent of society. And at the moment, for all Zuckerberg’s newfound willingness to submit, we don’t even have a path to obtain that consent. This is among the most urgent debates facing humanity.
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