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Facebook’s face-off

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s latest iteration of how to save the internet (read Facebook) came too close to 1 April to be taken seriously.

In the piece, also posted on his Facebook page, Zuckerberg wrote, “I believe we need a more active role for governments and regulators… 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 states that he believes the world needs new regulation in four areas: harmful content, election integrity, privacy and data portability and goes on to say “lawmakers often tell me we (Facebook or platforms as such?) have too much power over speech, and frankly I agree”.

Zuckerberg’s call for third-party bodies to determine the rules for social networks, quarterly transparency reports from the largest tech companies, stronger laws protecting elections and divisive political points, new voter-targeting and more comes two weeks after a sustained backlash in the wake of the Christchurch right wing terrorist attack in which 50 people were killed at a mosque, most of which was live-streamed on Facebook by one of the attackers.



Facebooks’ own political agenda

Responding to the article titled, ‘The Internet needs new rules. Let’s start in these four areas’, The Drum says it reads like Facebook’s own political pledge, perhaps guided by former UK deputy prime minister Nick Clegg who joined the company as head of global affairs and communications in October. Zuckerberg “is looking to get ahead of the legislative landslide coming at the social network by outlining his views on how government should regulate the internet,” writes John McCarthy, senior online reporter, referencing a Drum report that 2019 would be the year of reckoning for Facebook (Why 2019 will be Facebook’s year of reckoning – and how it can fix it).

FIPP, the network for global media, predicted in early March that despite multiple ongoing investigations and legal challenges against Facebook, the social network is about to become the target of increased regulatory measures (As the noose tightens, can Facebook face down regulatory scrutiny?).


The convenient side effect

Mashable’s senior technology reporter Karissa Bell writes Zuckerberg’s suggestions are designed to help Facebook. “By offloading decisions about harmful content, privacy rules, and elections onto third-parties, Facebook may not have to take as much of the heat when mistakes are made. And by touting the social network's existing work around political advertising and content moderation, Facebook has an opportunity to determine the rules the rest of the industry will also have to abide by.”

Bell also argues that Zuckerberg's desire for "data portability" would have “the convenient side effect” of making it much more difficult for regulators to argue that Facebook is a monopoly that should be broken up.”

Bloomberg reports that Facebook has a huge incentive to play a strong role in the debate around technology companies’ data regulation. “The company’s rapid revenue growth and billions of dollars in profits are fueled by collecting numerous data points around its customers and making that easily available to advertisers… Zuckerberg this year has worked to frame Facebook’s more critical problems as broader issues for the internet at large, not just affecting his company. His willingness to embrace regulation could take the harder questions out of Facebook’s hands, or at least give the company more time to solve them.”


Redefining itself as socially responsible

Tom McKay of science and technology website, Gizmodo references an example from history to shine some possible light on the Zuckerberg move. He says Phillip Morris, the cigarette titan came out in favour of regulation in the tobacco industry. This was a move to enhance the company’s legitimacy, redefine itself as socially responsible, and alter the litigation environment. “ don’t support regulation unless it either helps their bottom line or helps them avoid harsher regulations. Note that Facebook has reportedly been beefing up its army of lobbyists in DC, who may come in quite handy if there comes a time when legislators are deciding what is to be done about it.”

The announcement caused a considerable outpouring on social media itself, most notably on Twitter where Zuckerberg came in for a good measure of abuse, some either calling his op-ed an April Fool’s joke or identifying the piece as hypocrisy (with large number of abusive memes to go with it).


‘Facebook lost its seat at the table’

Jason Kint, CEO at Digital Content Next in the US, a nonprofit trade association that develops research, holds informational events and provides policy guidance for the digital content industry, took an even more radical view on Twitter. He suggested to media outlets to simply ignore Zuckerberg’s post. “Don’t cover it. It’s crazy to let Zuckerberg attempt to shape a debate about (the) future of digital at this point. Facebook lost its seat at the table on the topics, especially harmful content and privacy.”

In the UK the chairman of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee in the House of Commons, Damian Collins, tweeted: “Mark Zuckerberg now says he wants to discuss internet regulation with lawmakers around the world. He should start by finally accepting @commonscms (the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee) invitation, or come to our international grand committee in Ottawa in May to which he’s already been invited.”

Facebook has been avoiding questioning by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee for more than a year.

Whether regulatory control of the internet is desirable or not, it is clear that Zuckerberg is keen to help write the future rules of the internet, either to influence it or better understand it. The reality is that user tracking is highly profitable from a digital advertising point of view and his motivation could simply be to be the least influenced by future legislation, or at its worse he would like to have a hand in making it more difficult, if not impossible, for others to operate in Facebook's space.



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