Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s call for Internet regulation may be a turning point in Internet governance. In a blog post called “Four Ideas to Regulate the Internet,” the Facebook chief holds up a white flag of surrender regarding self-regulation of its own platform. It wants governments to come in to take over the burden and shield it from the intense pressure and controversies surrounding social media.
What makes this interesting is that many progressives and human rights advocates have also been calling for regulation of platforms. This is especially true in Europe, where the word “regulation” seems to mean a neutral, omniscient, practically divine external force, free of all self-interest or political influence, coming from the sky to correct any and all societal failures; there is an almost childlike belief in the ability of state intervention to make things better. Now these people are about to be schooled in the realities of regulation; it will be one of those “be careful what you ask for” moments.
His 4 ideas:
- Content regulation. Zuckerberg doesn’t want to have so much “power over speech,” so he wants regulation to “set baselines for what’s prohibited and require companies to build systems for keeping harmful content to a bare minimum.” There is no mention of the value of free and unsuppressed expression to be found.
- Protecting elections. Zuckerberg wants regulation to create “common standards for verifying political actors.” He says existing political advertising laws “primarily focus on candidates and elections, rather than divisive political issues where we’ve seen more attempted interference.” So, he envisions a dangerous broadening of political speech regulation to any messages about issues and controversies that might be considered political.
- Privacy and data protection. Zuckerberg calls for a “a globally harmonized framework” and holds up the GDPR as a model. This is one of his less objectionable ideas, but it is also a bit odd. The GDPR already exists so it is not a new “regulation of the Internet,” and Facebook’s legal department is doing everything it can to slow down and minimize the application of GDPR to domain name Whois.
- Data portability. This is a sensible and potentially pro-competitive suggestion; however, it sounds more like a form of standardization that could be and probably already is being taken care of in the market than a new form of regulation. And since the main obstacle to competing platforms is not so much the ability to move old data but the ability to share new information with other users on the same platform, it’s not clear that data portability would slay the network externalities that maintain Facebook’s dominance. Only an interconnection agreement that would allow access across all platforms would do that – and that would homogenize them and defeat true competition.
In the U.S. there is a long history of large enterprises asking for regulation. It started with the railroads. But the most apt historical comparison might be Theodore Vail’s 1907 Annual Report in which the mighty AT&T Corporation, assailed by independent competitors that had wired up 50% of the nation, embraced regulated monopoly as a means of taming and ending competition. As a historical turning point which may contribute to new forms of Internet governance, there is an important similarity between AT&T’s embrace of government regulation and Facebook’s capitulation.
“Regulation” could strengthen Facebook’s dominant market position by raising operating costs to levels that smaller companies could not bear. It could lock in common standards for the suppression of forms of speech that are not strictly illegal, thereby eliminating the possibility that new platforms could compete on the basis of more liberal content suppression policies. In another similarity to the old AT&T, as the Wall Street Journal wrote, “Inviting oversight also may dissuade regulators from breaking up a company that depends on its breadth of platforms for continued growth.” To regulate Facebook is to permanently institutionalize Facebook.
On the other hand there are important differences. Facebook’s primary concern is not so much “ruinous competition” but an increasingly angry mob of its own users, who feel locked in and hold it responsible, simultaneously, for suppressing too much expression, for not suppressing enough expression, for knowing and revealing too much private information, and for not exploiting private information well enough to detect and prevent harmful forms of expression. In fact, the sheer size of the FB platform has reached the point where the public and politicians are making impossible and contradictory demands on its content moderation processes.
Equally important, AT&T’s capitulation took place in a purely domestic context; the new institutions of regulation were at the state and (later) the federal level, whereas Facebook straddles a highly globalized environment spanning dozens of different countries. Calling for regulation inevitably means regulation by national governments, and this inevitably means jurisdictional fragmentation of internet content, applications and services. Zuckerberg’s blog post mostly avoids dealing with the implications of this. True, in privacy and data protection, Facebook correctly calls for globalized standards and rules, but when it comes to content regulation and election protections, his call for regulation would lead to alignment of platforms with national boundaries.
We think, oddly enough, that Facebook’s travails underscore the basic wisdom behind the original Section 230 legislation. Section 230 immunizes it from responsibility for posting illegal or harmful speech, but as a private actor, Facebook can exercise all kinds of “editorial discretion” for manually or algorithmically suppressing forms of content that it and its users consider objectionable or harmful. If its gigantic size makes it impossible to keep all of its users happy all of the time, then Facebook and Facebook alone should be saddled with economic responsibility for the way it makes those decisions. The call for government intervention is the media equivalent of the “too big to fail” fallacy. Offloading those responsibilities to governments is not going to make the choices any easier or the outcomes any better, it is just going to take the heat off of the actor who should be feeling the heat: the platform operator. In other words, Facebook and Facebook alone needs to pay the price for its outsized dominance of the social media market. That will impose natural limits on its continued expansion.
Postscript: After this was written we came across this article that reinforces our point about what more regulation would really mean. One of the Irish MPs meeting FB wants wants passports, PPS numbers or eye scans to be required by Facebook to get an account; another Irish MP said “European regulation rather than self-regulation has to oversee the development of these internet platforms.”