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Facebook calls for regulation. No really?!

Posted 24.04.19

Mark Zuckerberg suddenly wants governments to regulate the internet? What an almighty u-turn.

In a piece in The Washington Post last week, entitled “The Internet needs new rules. Let’s start in these four areas”, Zuckerberg lays out the role lawmakers need to take in order to curb harmful content, and protect election integrity, privacy and data portability (this is coming from the guy whose business leaked 87 million of its user’s data).

Zuckerberg, for the first time publicly perhaps, seems to acknowledge Facebook’s power and influence and the responsibility he and the Senior team at Facebook owe to their users. But he quickly suggests that the weight of the decisions he is grappling with, as the founder and CEO of a company with more than 2.3 billion users with the power to sway elections and cause unforeseen harm across the globe, is too much for one 34-year-old to bare.

“Every day, we make decisions about what speech is harmful, what constitutes political advertising, and how to prevent sophisticated cyber attacks. These are important for keeping our community safe. But if we were starting from scratch, we wouldn’t ask companies to make these judgments alone,” said Zuckerberg

Is he right?

Many would argue that it’s about time Zuckerberg got to thinking this way and started to take these critical issues more seriously.

Apple chief executive, Tim Cook, has taken every opportunity to have a pot-shot at Zuckerberg and Facebook’s handling of the misuse of user data and privacy issues. He said that “privacy to us is a human right” adding that Apple could “make a ton of money” if it chose to monetise its customers’ data. To which Zuckerberg responded in an interview with Vox that he found the claim “that somehow we can’t care about you to be extremely glib.” Glib it may be, but many people believe it and now at least it seems Facebook is ready to deal with it… finally.

Following the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the subsequent Congress hearing, Zuckerberg and senior Facebook figures have been under intense pressure to do more to tackle misuse of personal data and to find new ways to protect political integrity.

They’ve taken some (small) public steps to do this. The company now makes it clear to users when they are running political ads and changed regulations so that advertisers must verify their identity when posting political advertising on the platform. Facebook also now publishes a transparency report, showing how effective they have been at removing harmful and hate-fueled content.

However, by Zuckerberg’s own admission in his marathon five hour Senate deposition, he admits, “it’s clear now that we didn’t do enough to prevent these tools from being used for harm. That goes for fake news, foreign interference in elections, and hate speech, as well as developers and data privacy.”

So why now?

Following the public outcry and Senate hearings on the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook has seemingly bounced from one controversy to the next.

Firstly, the data retention “bug” issue. By allowing users to access and download their data archive, Facebook inadvertently alerted them to the fact that it had long been storing their deleted images and videos. The company blamed a bug but few were listening.

Then there was the admission of public profile scraping. Facebook admitted that “malicious actors” used the platform’s search tools to obtain personal information of millions of users. Chief technology officer Mike Schroepfer said in a statement, “given the scale and sophistication of the activity we’ve seen, we believe most people on Facebook could have had their public profile scraped in this way.” That’s a pretty damning statement from the man responsible for the data security of Facebook’s two billion users.

Controversies around hate speech have long dogged Facebook but none more so than perhaps the shocking abuse found in Myanmar. Following Zuckerberg’s claim during an interview with Ezra Klein at VOX Media, that the company had stopped anti-Rohingya propaganda from spreading on Facebook Messenger, representatives of Myanmar’s civil society organizations wrote an open letter criticising the company for its handling of the issue.

Media outlets such as the BBC, New York Times and Reuters all ran their own shocking stories of the abuse. Reuters damning report found more than 1,000 examples of posts, comments and pornographic images attacking the Rohingya and other Muslim groups on Facebook despite Zuckerberg telling U.S. senators that the site was hiring dozens more Burmese speakers to try and tackle the situation. Whether Facebook can come back from these issues is Zuckerberg’s almighty task.

Good business or good for business?

Whether the motive behind Zuckerberg seeking regulation is to be a ‘good business’ move or because it’s good for business to appear that way, it is clear that Facebook needs to lead on these important issues, both for business reasons and its ever-growing user base.

It’s no longer enough for a site with 2.3 billion users across the globe to simply get by with the motto “move fast and break things.” Because the things you are breaking matter. The things you are breaking affect people’s lives. The things you are breaking hurt society and influence the way people think.

Whether Zuckerberg likes it or not, his influence on the world is massive and just as Tim Cook has done at Apple, Zuckerberg needs to show leadership on the key issues affecting users. Legislation is coming and if he can be on the right side of this then it could be good for his image, his business and the future of Facebook.

If advertisers are going to continue to spend big on Facebook they need to see true leadership from the top on the issues that matter most. What Zuckerberg has done cleverly is pass the buck squarely onto lawmakers to try and tackle. Despite the fact he should clearly carry some responsibility in this area, Zuckerberg has managed to avoid giving even so much of a hint as to how he sees regulation working. From the bizarre and misinformed questions he faced in his deposition hearing, Zuckerberg knows lawmakers don’t currently have the expertise to tackle these issues and has therefore been able to avoid resolving it until public pressure has led to the business being affected.

Facebook knows it could take years to pass any meaningful legislation to tackle these issues and any attempts to rush through measures are unlikely to curb their influence. Calling the regulators bluff could have been Facebook’s trump card and Zuckerberg seems to have played it.

Tom Jarvis, Founder & Managing Director – Wilderness Agency