Facebook wants to be regulated. So says its chief executive and chairman Mark Zuckerberg. Regulate us, world. Do it now!
Facebook has been on a "regulate us, please" media blitz this week, pointedly choosing Europe as its launchpoint. Zuckerberg targeted Brussels and various European heads of state, while Monika Bickert, Facebook's vice-president for content policy, came to Ireland, which happens to be home to Facebook's main EU regulator, the Irish Data Protection Commission (DPC).
Two official company position statements were queued up in succession, too. Zuckerberg had an opinion piece expressing his yearning for regulation in the Financial Times, shared to his corporate blog on Tuesday, a day after Bickert announced a white paper from the company on online regulation, authored by her.
Why Europe? Because the EU has been far more serious about creating, using and considering further regulation, while US lawmakers can’t even manage a federal data protection law. Because Europe does not have anything parallel to the US First Amendment, which protects public freedom of speech, even for neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan (we’ll come back to that).
And because of course Facebook doesn’t actually “want regulation”. Quite a few large fines and international court cases demonstrate that Facebook hasn’t even bothered to comply with existing EU and US regulations. As we saw last week, it had planned to launch a major new sensitive-data-processing-based dating service in Europe without (as was required) demonstrating to the DPC how it would comply with GDPR.
So no, Facebook doesn’t actually want to be regulated, already a loose concept to it, at best. Instead, it wants its own idea of appropriate and ultimately, beneficial-to-Facebook “regulation”.
Hardly shocking. Facebook is a powerful company and is going to lobby. It senses the inclement climate of public opinion. So, it decided a year ago to start tooting the “regulation” horn. If you felt a chilling shiver of corporate deja vu this week, it’s because Zuckerberg said a lot of this stuff last March in a blog post that was also published as an opinion piece in the Washington Post. But that was mostly for a US audience.
This week, it’s all about Europe. Officially, “outside the United States” according to the Facebook report. But the PR visuals all were about Europe.
Yet Facebook really, really wants to frame this “outside the US” debate in US First Amendment freedom of speech terms. This is the thrust of its white paper, which calls for new regulatory “frameworks that ensure companies are making decisions about online speech in a way that minimises harm but also respects the fundamental right to free expression”.
Bickert states in the white paper: “This balance is necessary to protect the open internet, which is increasingly threatened – even walled off – by some regimes.”
Oh, please. The largest walled garden of non-portable, non-open, market-dominance-ensuring data is . . . Facebook. And, as has been well documented, Facebook itself has facilitated a few such "regimes"– by providing social media training for president Duterte's campaigners in the Philippines, and by ignoring repeated pleas from human rights activists to remove threatening hate campaigns in the Sudan, in Pakistan, in Assam and elsewhere.
Throughout Zuckerberg and Bickert’s writings is a suggestion that Facebook is loath to curtail freedom of speech, yet they don’t acknowledge that even the First Amendment has its limits – in particular, that it is a public right. A private company is not, as Facebook repeatedly terms itself, a kind of “public square”, with associated free speech rights.
A private company mostly doesn’t have to allow anyone to say anything. It can monitor and remove posts, images, videos, users.
So why the endless attempt to frame regulation as a risk to free speech? In 2019, Zuckerberg gave part of the game away in his Washington Post editorial. “We continually review our policies with experts, but at our scale we’ll always make mistakes and decisions that people disagree with.” At our “scale”.
And this week, he gave away a bit more in the FT: “The internet is a powerful force for social and economic empowerment. Regulation that protects people and supports innovation can ensure it stays that way.”
In summary: With inadequate regulation and oversight, Facebook became a massive, global, data-engorged platform whose business model would suffer if it had to hire enough people to properly monitor and administrate it. Like so many tech companies hiding behind the tedious “innovation” defence, its blistering expansion and large-scale, privacy-destroying data exploitation would have suffered if it paid more attention to regulation.
Facebook does not want regulation. It does not want a different, less lucrative, albeit less harm-inflicting business model in which it cannot monetise personal data in ways that also, inevitably, enable bullying, trolling, dark campaigns and viral hate. Instead, it wants to suck Europe into a distorted view of US free speech rights and limits, while ensuring that a blind reverence for “innovation” removes the threat of limiting its technological freedom to do as it pleases.