Zuck: Facebook needs government oversight

It wasn’t an April Fool’s joke: Mark Zuckerberg claims to want more government oversight and regulation of platforms like Facebook.

In an op-ed published Saturday in the Washington Post, the man behind the like button said it’s time to consider ways to make social media platforms, and the internet in general, a better place.

Specifically, he calls for “new regulation in four areas: harmful content, election integrity, privacy and data portability.” Focusing on these areas will help preserve what he feels is best about the internet: “The freedom for people to express themselves and for entrepreneurs to build new things.”

Just days after saying white supremacists groups will be banned from Facebook, Zuckerberg begins his column by say there’s a responsibility tech companies have to help keep people safe. “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.”

To address that, Facebook is creating an independent body, he says, that will allow people or groups that have been flagged as hateful or in violation of the platform’s policies to appeal those decisions. His company also is working with government officials to ensure the content review system is effective and equitable.

There should be some eyebrows raised about Facebook developing its own independent body for review. What kind of influence will it have over the members of this review board? Who will select or vote down the people on it? If this independent body decides that Facebook isn’t doing enough to protect people, or is going too far on the side of censorship, will it be disbanded? We’ll have to wait and see.

Overall, Zuckerberg said third-party bodies should “set standards governing the distribution of harmful content and to measure companies against those standards. Regulation could set baselines for what’s prohibited and require companies to build systems for keeping harmful content to a bare minimum,” adding that a company of Facebook’s scale cannot possibly find every last darkened corner and eradicate awful people advocating harm.

Secondly, Facebook has built a searchable archive for political ads, indicating who paid for an ad, what other ads the same funders have supported and the audience that saw the ad. There are, of course, grey areas when it comes to deciding what constitutes a political ad; “Our systems would be more effective if regulation created common standards for verifying political actors.”

Here’s another area in which eyebrows should go up: Remember, one person’s lobbyist is another’s activist. One person’s special interest group is another’s opposition.

In his third point, Zuckerberg calls for the adoption of privacy regulations similar to the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, saying privacy protections should allow people to “protect your right to choose how your information is used – while enabling companies to use information for safety purposes and to provide services.” He also wants this bolstering of privacy protections to “establish a way to hold companies such as Facebook accountable by imposing sanctions when we make mistakes.”

It sounds like Zuckerberg wants his cake and to eat it too: Which information would be anonymized and which would be used for direct, targeted advertising? What constitutes a “service” in this use and what would be considered off limits?  And as for those sanctions, when a company as big, powerful and influential as Facebook makes a mistake, who’s going to hold it accountable for its actions, when the U.S. government hasn’t been able to do so? Lobbyists for the tech giant sure do hold a lot of sway; how would this regulation change that?

Finally, Zuck wants to make it as easy for data to be moved around as it is simple to sign into an app via Facebook. “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.”

Once again, who’s doing the deciding here, and what would be the repercussions for using data in a way other than how it was intended? Who’s policing the watchdogs?

Zuckerberg, for all his many faults and shortcomings, has a solid point, but he’s also a bit shortsighted, says Carys Afoko, executive director and co-founder of the feminist community Level Up, in the Guardian.

She applauds him for asking for help in making his community a better, safer and more ethically minded place, but “one of the big challenges facing governments around the world is not whether to regulate social media companies such as Facebook, but how to. If you’re like me and the internet has given you the attention span of a four-year-old child, you’re already bored. But ultimately no regulation of tech giants will work unless users are involved. And that’s why we have to engage in this debate.”

Afoko calls out Facebook’s slow response to the Christchurch shooter’s livestreaming of the massacre of 50 people in two mosques just a few weeks ago, or the ability of young people to broadcast self-harm to followers, in addition to the theft of private information through companies like Cambridge Analytica, a Facebook ally for a time.

“The internet at its best connects and empowers; it is worth fighting for. But the way companies operate has not been under enough scrutiny until recently,” she writes. “Facebook has committed to creating an independent body to review its moderation decisions, nicknamed the Facebook supreme court. If it is to function properly, the court of public opinion will be equally important in holding social media giants to account.”

Want more thoughts on this? Try here, here and here for starters.

Amber Healy

I write about music policy and lawsuits because they're endlessly fascinating.

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