Monday, 30th October 2017

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Why Mark Zuckerberg wants Facebook to be regulated

Many at the company expect lawmakers to act to contain it, so the social network is trying to set its own terms for what regulations should look like

By Mike Isaac/The New York Times in New York
  • Published 1.04.19, 1:21 PM
  • Updated 1.04.19, 1:24 PM
  • 4 mins read
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Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify at a joint Senate judiciary and commerce committee hearing in Washington on April 10, 2018. The New York TImes

Facebook has faced months of scrutiny for a litany of ills, from spreading misinformation to not properly protecting its users’ data to allowing foreign meddling in elections.

Many at the Silicon Valley company now expect lawmakers and regulators to act to contain it — so the social network is trying to set its own terms for what any regulations should look like.

That helps explain why Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, wrote an opinion piece for The Washington Post on Saturday laying out a case for how he believes his company should be treated.

In his post, Zuckerberg discussed four policy areas — harmful content, election integrity, privacy and data portability — which he said the government should focus attention on.

Here’s an annotated analysis of Zuckerberg’s post and what he is seeking to do with each area.

Harmful Content

“First, harmful content. Facebook gives everyone a way to use their voice, and that creates real benefits — from sharing experiences to growing movements. As part of this, we have a responsibility to keep people safe on our services. That means deciding what counts as terrorist propaganda, hate speech and more. We continually review our policies with experts, but at our scale we'll always make mistakes and decisions that people disagree with.”

Harmful content across Facebook is an enormous category, spanning abuse and bullying to the recent live-streamed shootings at two mosques in New Zealand. With more than 2.7 billion people regularly using Facebook’s services, policing such content is far and away the most difficult issue facing the company.

By saying that “Facebook gives everyone a way to use their voice,” Zuckerberg makes something clear: The social network’s sheer size means there will forever be errors, mistakes and things that it misses. Tens of billions of posts are shared to the network every day, making it impossible to keep the platform clear of harmful content.

Facebook has had a difficult time deciding what is and isn’t allowed on its site. Its policies often seem to be defined by its most extreme cases, which often spur outrage when handled poorly by the company’s content moderators.

If Facebook’s policy determinations will always cause dissatisfaction, then it may be better to leave it up to lawmakers to write the rules for it. By adhering to the letter of the law, Facebook can effectively shield itself from blame when something inevitably goes awry.

Election Protection

“Second, legislation is important for protecting elections. Facebook has already made significant changes around political ads: Advertisers in many countries must verify their identities before purchasing political ads. We built a searchable archive that shows who pays for ads, what other ads they ran and what audiences saw the ads. However, deciding whether an ad is political isn't always straightforward. Our systems would be more effective if regulation created common standards for verifying political actors.”

For years, Facebook has maintained little oversight over its political advertising practices. The company raked in revenue by the billions of dollars on the back of its automated advertising system. Wall Street loved Facebook’s reliable blockbuster financial results and the company’s stock soared.

But after evidence showed foreign actors purchased Facebook ads to sway the 2016 presidential election in the US, the company has had to quickly build systems that monitor and control the types of ads allowed on its network.

Yet Facebook has had a difficult time determining what is and is not a political advertisement. Last year, publishers ran into issues promoting their political news stories on Facebook as the company’s new systems began classifying those stories as political ads.

It would serve Facebook to let lawmakers determine what is and is not a political advertisement. When the next erroneous outburst inevitably occurs, Facebook could point towards the law it was forced to follow.

Privacy and data protection issues

“Third, effective privacy and data protection needs a globally harmonised framework. People around the world have called for comprehensive privacy regulation in line with the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation, and I agree. I believe it would be good for the internet if more countries adopted regulation such as GDPR as a common framework.”

Since the European Union implemented stringent privacy guidelines to protect consumer data last year, one of the most consistent worries from the technology community has been how tough this might make life for the start-up community. That’s because start-ups typically don’t have the resources to comply with so many rules.

But Facebook is a deep-pocketed, well-staffed and mature company. It can take time and effort to make sure its systems are acting in full accordance with privacy regulations in every country.

Facebook also grew to an enormous size by collecting user data when there were virtually no online privacy regulations about this practice. If laws are enacted to limit data collection in the future, Facebook may be able to squash smaller companies who want to challenge Zuckerberg’s dominance in social networking.

Data portability

“Finally, regulation should guarantee the principle of data portability. If you share data with one service, you should be able to move it to another. This gives people choice and enables developers to innovate and compete.”

This paragraph is perhaps the most self-serving of all of Zuckerberg’s proposals. Though clothed in the language of openness and choice, it is essentially a way for Facebook to argue that it does not have a monopoly on social networking.

Facebook claims its users would be able to freely take their information from one network to the next, giving people the ability to choose where they spend their time while allowing competitors a fair chance at winning over audiences.

In reality, Facebook already owns the lion’s share of much of the world’s social networking companies — Facebook, Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp. And Zuckerberg is moving to integrate the messaging services he owns, further tightening the networks of users across all of his services. (This move may make it more difficult for lawmakers to break up Zuckerberg’s company, something he has gone to great lengths to defend against.)

Facebook’s nascent effort at making its social graph inter-operable with other companies has already been middling. It has been just enough to show that Facebook is making an effort — but not much more.