View from Washington: Facebook wants regulation, in its own inimitable way

Mark Zuckerberg has published an open letter calling for the regulation of social media - only in its own very special, and very predictable, Facebook-y way.

On Saturday, The Washington Post published an article by Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg in which he actively calls for greater regulation of social media. That’s quite a turnaround, given his previous position and some of his company’s past behaviour - so why has the response been so muted?

In part, it’s because a good slice of what Zuckerberg proposes can be seen as deflection. If, as he suggests, governments and regulators set baseline standards for harmful content, electoral integrity, privacy and data portability (the four areas where Zuckerberg thinks new rules are most urgently needed), then Facebook will be able to justify its content strategies and head off criticism more easily: “See, those are the rules and we comply.”

There has also been criticism that Zuckerberg is pushing ideals over reality, particularly with regard to privacy. Here, he is seeking a “common global framework” based on the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). GDPR is seen as ripe for cherry-picking by many governments, but the likelihood of a truly global agreement on privacy is slim. Political deviation across the countries that would need to sign it tells us that.

When it comes to data portability, there is so much that Facebook and its rivals could already have done unprompted towards common data formats, but haven’t. It is hard not to agree with commentators who see this as the most self-serving of Zuckerberg’s proposals – one mostly intended to help his company head off claims that its aggregation of brands (also including Instagram and WhatsApp) represents a monopoly.

The really big problem, though, remains trust. We see a Facebook statement and the default response is to look for the holes - and with some justification. Zuckerberg’s latest comments come almost immediately in the wake of another series of serious controversies.

Facebook faces legal action by the US government because its advertising policies stand accused of enabling racial discrimination in the real estate sector. A BBC Storyville documentary followed on from a recent report by The Verge, again raising serious questions over Facebook’s content moderation procedures. And, along with YouTube, the company’s live video platform was used to stream the Christchurch mosque shootings.

In the latter case, COO Sheryl Sandberg addressed the streaming issue also this weekend in an open letter published by The NZ Herald. Appearing two weeks after the attacks, it also – like Zuckerberg’s article – offered outlines and frameworks rather than specific solutions (though the company is at least now “exploring restrictions” on those who can stream live).

“We have heard feedback that we must do more – and we agree,” Sandberg wrote. Which would again be good news, were it not becoming so familiar a refrain from the company. It is the Facebook equivalent of “thoughts and prayers”.

The fact remains that because it has the data and it has played so many ghastly games of Whack-A-Mole, Facebook has a clearer idea of the problems facing social media than any other organisation. If regulation is coming, it is largely because the company has simply failed to address them.

On top of that, it has long had hot-and-cold relationships with bona fide researchers over access to data; it has been gnomic in its disclosures to governments (with Zuckerberg even refusing to meet UK representatives, despite the running sore that is the Brexit vote), and still seems to believe that vague public statements and promises will suffice.

If the intention behind Zuckerberg’s article was to position Facebook so that it can be an active participant in the drafting of new regulations – and, point of order, the company accepted that these were inevitable a year ago, but is only now actively agreeing with their creation – it hasn’t really done the job.

Indeed, it is amazing that a company than reputedly spends so much on PR and lobbying can be as bad at both as it is. But there you have it.

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