Mark Zuckerberg laid out his vision of a more secure Internet through government intervention in an op-ed in the Washington Post this weekend.
Mark Zuckerberg: New Rules Are Needed
In an op-ed published in the Washington Post this weekend, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg proposed a roadmap for Internet regulation where he believes that government—particularly the US Government—has a distinct role to play.
“I believe we need a more active role for governments and regulators,” Zuckerberg writes. “By updating the rules for the internet, we can preserve what’s best about it — the freedom for people to express themselves and for entrepreneurs to build new things — while also protecting society from broader harms.”
He goes on to describe the four areas he believes government’s role has been improperly delegated to Internet companies: protecting society from harmful content, ensuring election integrity, protecting people’s privacy, and guaranteeing people’s data portability.
Protecting Society From Harmful Content
Following Facebook’s announcement this week that they have removed and banned all white nationalist or white separatist groups or associated pages from Facebook, Zuckerberg takes on the issue of harmful content online.
"Lawmakers often tell me we have too much power over speech, and frankly I agree."—Mark Zuckerberg, CEO Facebook, Washington Post
“Lawmakers often tell me we have too much power over speech, and frankly I agree,” he writes. “I’ve come to believe that we shouldn’t make so many important decisions about speech on our own.”
Besides saying that Facebook is creating an independent body where users can appeal Facebook’s content decisions, he goes a step further and says that there needs to be an agreed-upon standard for what constitutes harmful content so that all Internet companies, not just Facebook, can use that standard to police their platforms.
“It’s impossible to remove all harmful content from the internet, but when people use dozens of different sharing services—all with their own policies and processes—we need a more standardized approach,” he wrote.
The giant polar bear in the room is the role of social media in the efforts by outside entities to attempt to disrupt the US Presidential election in 2016, and Zuckerberg thinks it is the proper realm of government to make policy for Facebook and others to follow when it comes to the content on their platform during an election.
“Facebook has already made significant changes around political ads: Advertisers in many countries must verify their identities before purchasing political ads,” he wrote. “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.”
Privacy and Data Protection
Zuckerberg’s third area of focus is the patchwork of standards that different jurisdictions have when it comes to personal privacy and data integrity. Using the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) as a starting point, Zuckerberg writes that governments need to implement a common global privacy and data integrity framework.
“New privacy regulation in the United States and around the world should build on the protections GDPR provides. It should protect your right to choose how your information is used—while enabling companies to use information for safety purposes and to provide services.”
One benefit for the Internet companies in such an instance would be the streamlining of regulations over several diverse markets that they serve, reducing compliance costs; it’s much easier to follow one law everywhere than following a bunch of different ones in several different countries.
“I also believe a common global framework—rather than regulation that varies significantly by country and state—will ensure that the internet does not get fractured, entrepreneurs can build products that serve everyone, and everyone gets the same protections,” he writes.
Guaranteeing Data Portability
Zuckerberg’s final area where government intervention is needed is in the case of data portability, the idea that your data is your data and you should be able to move it from one service to another without restriction.
“True data portability should look more like the way people use our platform to sign into an app than the existing ways you can download an archive of your information. But this requires clear rules about who’s responsible for protecting information when it moves between services.”
Transferring data from one site to another has genuine utility, though it also comes with specific security challenges. That said, it’s not exactly like private companies have been vigilant guardians of user data when it comes to outside hacking or other improper access and use of their users’ data. Even if these companies were capable of securing this data, they seem to have no desire to do so when it's cheaper to pay a small fine than pay the actual cost of securing the data they have collected.
Mark Zuckerberg Opens This Round of Negotiations Over Regulations
This last point can apply to all of Zuckerberg’s proposed areas of focus and beyond.
Until this year, Facebook and Zuckerberg were saying that regulation of their services, which—if done by governments—could raise costs and possibly limit their access to money-making opportunities, should strictly be done in house or through industry self-regulation. In the case of the GDPR, not that long ago, Zuckerberg was making the case that the GDPR was fine, for Europe, but other countries shouldn't model their own laws on it.
When it came to election interference, it hasn't been half a year since Zuckerberg refused to cooperate with a joint UK and Canadian parliamentary inquiry into the spread of Fake News on social media platforms. Now, he wants to have the government dictate the terms of political discussion on social media.
As for harmful content, their recent moves banning white nationalist groups from Facebook was in response to the horrific terrorist attack in New Zealand that was live-streamed over Facebook Live, something Facebook couldn't stop while it was happening because they have relied on AI-algorithms to flag inappropriate content, and there hasn't been enough content like the barbarism in Christchurch to train their AI on.
Even if the government explicitly told Facebook what to take down because it was deemed harmful, Facebook admits that they rely on computers to do most of the actual work and that their algorithms can't flag a terrorist killing spree. So the government's lack of clarity isn't the problem here; it's the inability of Facebook's algorithm to police content that anyone could see on its face was harmful.
You could say that its hard for computers to do this, and you'd be right. Which is why computers shouldn't do it, people should; but that would slow down the spread of content on their platforms that they need to survive. This is the essential problem. It's not the policies; it's not the lack of regulations; it's the mechanisms of social media itself that are baked into these companies business models.
Zuckerberg may be expressing his genuine feelings about these issues, having taken back a lot of the control over Facebook and its properties that he had delegated to others over the years. This may finally be the real Zuckerberg, and we may be seeing a genuine shift in how Facebook operates now that Zuckerberg is back in charge of everything. We shouldn't forget, however, that the alternative for Facebook and other Internet companies to government regulations is becoming a bit more dicey for them and their shareholders. Google, for one, probably isn't thrilled about how much "anti-trust enforcement" has been trending as of late.
With the amount of pressure Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and others have been under for everything from privacy breaches to exposure of children to potentially harmful media, Internet companies appear to finally be seeing how swiftly they are losing control of the narrative, and that it is endangering their bottom line.
Facebook at least appears to be coming to the table to begin negotiating the terms of their continued existence. While we should welcome their willingness to cooperate with public officials—even if these overtures may only be cynical business decisions made in order to forestall harsher sanctions down the road—, it shouldn’t have taken this long to get to this point and we should never forget why they're at the table in the first place.