Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently penned an op-ed in The Washington Post asking regulators and lawmakers for “new rules” for the tech industry and identifying four ways for Facebook to better self-regulate. The op-ed comes on the heels of months of scandals over Facebook’s content moderation policies, use of user data, and other privacy abuses.
While Zuckerberg proposals address serious issues, multiple European and U.S.-based tech experts see his request for regulation as more of a calculated PR move to make sure that any future regulation benefits Facebook and solidifies Facebook as a dominant market player.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) frequently argues that Facebook often talks about embracing consumer-friendly policies in one breath, but then does something decidedly anti-consumer in the next.
Facebook knows regulators are extremely suspicious and critical of the company’s practices, which may explain why Facebook spent more than $12 million lobbying mostly members of Congress in 2018, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The op-ed highlights harmful content, election integrity, privacy and data portability as four important areas where Facebook can improve. Specifically, Zuckerberg said Facebook would create an “independent body” to which users can appeal content moderation decisions.
“This whole move is very rational for Mark Zuckerberg,” Roslyn Layton, a visiting tech scholar with the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) told InsideSources. “Trying to outsource the community standards makes sense so they don’t seem to be liable for the content they deliver, and distance Facebook from these claims that they’re politically biased. You could see this could work well, and from Facebook’s perspective, to demonstrate that they’re trying to do something about claims that they’re distributing malicious content, even though they aren’t technically liable under Section 230 [of the 1994 Communications Decency Act].”
At the same time, parts of Zuckerberg’s op-ed appeared disingenuous, like his statement that “Lawmakers often tell me we have too much power over speech, and frankly I agree.”
Zuckerberg’s critics note that Facebook’s business model revolves around the collection, packaging and dissemination of speech and information. The idea that Facebook has “too much power” in this area runs counter to Facebook’s fundamental operations.
Then there’s the opening about privacy and data portability. Zuckerberg calls for “harmonized” privacy rules, and describes GDPR as a good starting point for the U.S. to build its own federal privacy law.
Antonis Patrikios, a privacy and cybersecurity lawyer at London-based law firm Fieldfisher, told CNBC this is just Facebook acknowledging the reality that it must comply with GDPR, and compliance would be easier if the U.S. created a similar law.
The EFF wrote in a blog post Tuesday arguing that Facebook’s plan to take a more aggressive role in speech moderation should actually concern users, because it is a slippery slope to censorship.
“It is extremely difficult to define ‘harmful content,’ much less implement standards consistently and fairly for billions of users, across the entire spectrum of contemporary thought and belief,” Legal Director Corynne McSherry and Research Associate Gennie Gebhart write. “Mark Zuckerberg’s own company’s efforts to do so show how fraught that is. If individual companies, some with massive resources, can’t get this right, we have no reason to imagine that an independent body will do much better.”
Layton also told InsideSources that while data portability is a buzzword in privacy debates, it doesn’t really make sense for Facebook in practice, since there isn’t even a direct competitor to Facebook in terms of social media.
“The idea that you’re going to take your data and go to an alternative Facebook is pretty dead,” she said. “It’s no skin off Mark Zuckerberg’s back. This idea that we’re going to make your data portable and somehow creates competition to Facebook is kind of a joke. You can’t take your data to Amazon, or to an e-commerce site. Not all data is expungable to different types of platforms. It might not even be [expungable] to LinkedIn.”
Tom Lee, policy lead at Mapbox, a small business that provides mapping and navigation solutions to other tech companies like Facebook, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee recently on data privacy, and also told InsideSources in an interview that data portability isn’t very feasible.
“Philosophically I love it,” he said, but Google and Facebook have offered businesses that work with them a data portability option for years. Lee said Mapbox doesn’t know what to do with it, since other businesses don’t take the ported data.
“Maybe people haven’t cracked the code (of what to do with it), which is something we could do,” he said. “I wish this worked, and it doesn’t seem like it does. There are potential risks that come with this. The thing that concerns me is how this could be used by identity thieves. We only collect anonymized data, we have no way to confirm individual data if someone came to us asking for it. There are some security risks associated with it, and it’s not clear it’s empirically worked in the past.”
Ultimately, Layton said, the most concerning thing about Zuckerberg’s op-ed is the fact that he called for more regulation in the first place.
“We need to be very cautious whenever large companies say please regulate us,” she said. “That’s how we got the Kingsbury Commitment of 1913 and the AT&T behemoth. When companies ask to be regulated, they only do it in their best interest. When you’re the CEO of your own company, you want to act in your best interest.”
That doesn’t mean we should pass this off as pro-consumer, she said.