Mark Zuckerberg’s call for stepped up government oversight of the internet met a skeptical response from privacy advocates and other critics who are frustrated with Facebook Inc’s repeated missteps and say that its billionaire chief executive officer shouldn’t get to make the rules.
“I don’t think it’s ultimately for Mark Zuckerberg to decide how much regulation Mark Zuckerberg is prepared to accept,” said Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which has lodged numerous complaints about the company’s handling of personal data.
Zuckerberg’s policy gambit is likely to inflame the debate in Washington over how to rein in Facebook and other social media companies, including whether the US should adopt the European standard as it drafts a national privacy law. It could also deepen rifts within tech industry ranks, especially if efforts arise to narrow the exemption from responsibility for content posted by users on their platforms that companies like Alphabet Inc’s Google and Facebook enjoy.
Zuckerberg’s proposal over the weekend for government regulation of four broad areas –harmful content, election integrity, privacy and data portability — emerged as Facebook and other social media companies confront a crescendo of bipartisan criticism. Among other things, they are accused of exploiting personal data, allowing election meddling on their platforms and being slow to address online violence and hate speech.
The company’s founder unveiled his vision for regulation in a blog post just weeks after Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren urged the breakup of Facebook and other internet companies. Warren, a Massachusetts senator, said the businesses have amassed too much power and are damaging the economy and American democracy.
Roger McNamee, an early Facebook investor who’s now one of the company’s loudest critics, said in an interview that Zuckerberg’s proposal “would mostly absolve it of responsibility without addressing the underlying causes of election interference, hate speech, disinformation and the various privacy challenges that have emerged.”
McNamee, who is the co-founder of investment fund Elevation Partners Inc. and the author of the book “Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe,” pointed to the company’s plans to merge the data sets of Instagram and WhatsApp with Facebook’s, which he said “would greatly complicate the task of protecting users” privacy.
Cambridge Analytica Scandal
Facebook is fighting multiple investigations around the globe, many of which were launched last year in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, when it was revealed that the political consultancy with ties to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign had obtained data from millions of Facebook users without their consent.
Facebook has also been criticized for its failure last month to stop the spread of videos of an anti-Muslim massacre in New Zealand, which has spurred calls for content regulation. It’s also been accused by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development of enabling bias in housing ads.
“Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t get to make the rules anymore,” tweeted Representative David Cicilline of Rhode Island who chairs the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, in response to Zuckerberg’s blog post and Washington Post opinion piece. “Facebook is under criminal and civil investigation. It has shown it cannot regulate itself. Does anyone even want his advice?”
Nick Clegg, Facebook’s head of global affairs, told Bloomberg in an interview Sunday that regulators around the world should agree on common standards to avoid a patchwork of regulations that can create a compliance minefield for international companies.
“There’s good regulation and there’s bad regulation,” said Clegg, a former U.K. deputy prime minister. “There’s sensible regulation and there’s unwelcome regulation.”
Last year, Facebook was fined 500,000 pounds ($645,000 at the time) by the U.K. privacy regulator in what was then the maximum penalty for “serious” violations of data protection rules. U.K. Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham said Monday she expected the company “to review their current appeal” against the penalty, in light of Zuckerberg’s statement.
Some saw Zuckerberg’s effort as a ploy to punt the company’s problems to the government and get out from under incessant bad publicity.
“They would very much like for people to stop being mad at them, and they’re willing to sacrifice any principle and make any compromise to make that happen,” said Jesse Blumenthal, who leads technology and innovation policy for the libertarian Koch network.
Blumenthal suggested Facebook was looking for a win-win. The company was inviting “a large and complicated regulatory regime” that would mollify angry policy-makers, but ultimately protect the company’s market position by overwhelming upstart competitors, he said.
Brendan Carr, a Republican commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission, tweeted that he was a “no” on Zuckerberg’s plan. “Outsourcing censorship to the government is not just a bad idea, it would violate the First Amendment,” Carr said.
Zuckerberg has said that Facebook would roll out controls to users worldwide required under Europe’s privacy rule, known as the General Data Protection Regulation. Some privacy activists said they hoped the executive’s promise would be a starting point to prompt lawmakers to push for tighter measures and reject other industry attempts to water down regulation.
“When lawmakers hear the head of Facebook say they would support a GDPR-style bill in the US, that’s important,” said EPIC’s Rotenberg.
Rotenberg and Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, acknowledged the possibility that Zuckerberg could add momentum to a push for a national privacy law, but said that after years of scandals they have little faith in the company’s credibility to set the course of US policy and would need to hear more details about what Facebook is actually proposing.
Zuckerberg’s move also isn’t the first time Facebook has broken ranks with its internet brethren. In 2017, technology companies including Facebook and Google opposed an effort to curb online sex trafficking by making the companies liable when users posted content that facilitated sex trafficking on their platforms.
In November 2017, though, Facebook moved to support a more nuanced version of the measure that ultimately passed, but the internet platforms, which had once enjoyed a glowing reception in Washington as innovators driving economic growth, soon began grappling with tarnished reputations over their impact on society.
Zuckerberg’s bid for regulation sets Facebook on a more vocal course than Google and its other rivals over how to address harmful content or draft a federal privacy law. Industry groups are seeking a privacy measure that would be more palatable to US companies than the European regulation Zuckerberg advocates.
“It puts Google and others in a difficult spot,” said CDD’s Chester. “How can they call for less privacy rights for Americans if one of the industry’s leaders says Congress needs to do better?”
The most contentious debates over privacy legislation in Congress center around a question that Zuckerberg didn’t address head on in his weekend sortie — whether a federal law would override California’s restrictive privacy rules. That’s an issue that has drawn active lobbying by industry groups, including several that include Facebook.
“Is this just another Mark mea culpa that he makes at times of company crises?” Chester said. “The real proof is not what you put in print today, but what the company does on the Hill tomorrow,” Chester added.