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I Think Facebook Gets This One Wrong

In an op-ed in the Washington Post, Mark Zuckerberg is calling for “new rules” for the internet, which amounts to government regulations.

I totally get why Facebook wants this. It is getting battered from all sides. It has shareholders to contend with who see the daily slams from the media, a bipartisan group of congressmen are saber rattling, and the company’s leadership has recognized where the winds are blowing. Undoubtedly, the U.S. government is headed towards regulation and so it is smart of Facebook to get ahead of it.

But I do disagree with the regulatory approach.

This feels more like a surrender. Each of the major hits on Facebook of late, from the Housing and Urban Development lawsuit against the company to the slams on racist groups using Facebook have everything to do with how people use the site and not how the company is governed.

Short of banning people from using the internet, Facebook cannot fix that problem. But government may provide the regulatory structure by which social media giants like Facebook can curtail how certain segments of the population use their site. That would be troublesome.

We can also not underestimate the number of hostile media reports that are based on grudges from media companies outsourcing their growth to Facebook only to realize Facebook was not doing what the media companies wanted. Instead of blaming themselves, they blame Facebook.

Zuckerberg writes,

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. From what I’ve learned, I believe we need new regulation in four areas: harmful content, election integrity, privacy and data portability.

It is no secret that the four areas mentioned are the various areas both Republicans and Democrats seem to be focusing on. But does the government really need to be involved in defining what “harmful content” is? The U.S. government, in particular, has a first amendment that is broader than free speech rules in other western nations.

Election integrity is one area that does potentially make sense, though that seems fraught with all sorts of problems. Facebook’s present implementation seems to be a responsible, if frustrating, step and this comes back to free speech issues. If someone puts up a meme on Facebook that gets wide traction, is that really influencing the election? Presently, to advertise for political issues on Facebook, one must fill out a form, get a letter with a code delivered to a physical address where the potential advertiser resides, then check a box on Facebook if the ad is political. And the default, in my experience, is that Facebook blocks any ad from such advertiser if the box is not checked. I’ve had to check the box when I was just putting up a promo for a recipe email list.

Lastly, on privacy and data, why does the government need to be involved? Facebook could do that itself as could other companies. In fact, Apple has turned privacy into a marketing gimmick for itself to use against companies like Facebook.

This one strikes me as shareholder cover. Facebook has an amazingly robust ad platform that pretty much anyone can use. In order to make it less robust and less effective, it is going to need to explain the government made the company degrade its offerings.

I think Facebook has the chance to take a lead on data and privacy on its own now in ways that, should the government decide to regulate, Facebook can help set the agenda through its behavior now. But I think calling for government regulation, while understandable given the position Facebook is in, is not the right approach. Just do what you think should be done and leave the government out of it.

The other danger, of course, is that regulating internet companies will raise the cost of entry for future competitors and make giants like Facebook, Google, etc. harder to disrupt through the free market. And I think that actually works against these companies’ interests as well because competition will make them better.

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