The Irish Times view on Facebook: A dubious conversion

Zuckerberg by now has well-established pattern of denying, then apologising

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in Dublin on April 2nd. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in Dublin on April 2nd. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

 

Facebook founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg’s visit to Dublin this week was a positive step from a powerful company with many pressing questions to answer.

Zuckerberg’s short stopover came just days after he signalled that he would embrace stronger international regulation of technology companies such as his. He called for new regulation in four areas: “harmful content, election integrity, privacy and data portability.”

Internationally, Facebook has been implicated in major crises in every one of these areas, and a willingness to tackle these problems productively with authorities and governments is vital.

However, Zuckerberg’s commitment to this new agenda will be viewed, rightly, with scepticism.

Document leaks and investigative journalism have shown the company actively lobbying against regulation in the past.

Zuckerberg said he expected all countries would eventually create GDPR-like privacy protections

And Facebook and Zuckerberg by now have a well-established pattern of first denying or playing down problems, then making admissions and apologies.

Promised fixes have been inadequate.

On the positive side, Zuckerberg’s decision to make a stop in Dublin demonstrated a willingness to engage from the top with the country in which Facebook has its EU headquarters and employs a large workforce.

Of greater significance, Ireland is the company’s regulator in Europe. Decisions made here will affect the company’s operations, and millions of users of Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram, not just across the EU but globally.

Zuckerberg sat down with three Oireachtas communications committee members, who also sit on the International Grand Committee on Disinformation and Fake News.

Some change is already afoot. European privacy legislation such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is forcing Facebook and other data-gathering companies to offer similar levels of protection elsewhere.

In Dublin, Zuckerberg said he expected all countries would eventually create GDPR-like privacy protections.

But that will not be enough to address the company’s self-inflicted problems. Facebook’s enthusiasm for technological solutions, such as using artificial intelligence, is unlikely to bring about the sort of change that can only come from corporate restructuring and changes to the company’s core business model of exploiting users’ personal data.

Meanwhile, Singapore has just announced tough new regulation, fiercely opposed by Facebook, which allows for massive fines and government restrictions on content. Human rights organisations also condemned that legislation.

Still, Facebook’s reaction suggests the regulation Facebook says it wants, may be limited to the regulation Facebook likes. Wishful thinking on the company’s part, surely, but for regulators and governments, finding the right balance will be a challenge.

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