Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has a message for Washington: We’re excited to change the way we run Facebook. Just tell us how.
That is the main takeaway from a statement he will bring to Congress on Thursday in a hearing on the role of social media in spreading misinformation. But it’s also the mantra that Zuckerberg and Facebook have repeated for years, in targeted messages like the Washington Post and paid ads targeting the Beltway crowd.
And it’s more or less the standard position of Facebook when it comes to making all sorts of decisions about running the enormous and hugely profitable company: “Yes, we run a company that had sales of $ 84 billion last year. And is currently worth more than $ 800 billion. But we want someone else to take responsibility for… ”and here you can fill in the blank as it can range from the question of whether a Pulitzer Prize-winning photo can be featured on the website or whether Donald Trump is on Facebook can post.
Now Facebook is in a position where everyone in Washington wants to do something on Facebook, although that depends on what part of the political spectrum they sit on. Republicans want Facebook to promise not to censor Republicans anymore, even though there is no evidence that this is actually happening. Democrats want Facebook to promise not to destabilize democracy.
Now Zuckerberg is adding a twist to his standard regulation requirement: he calls on Congress to force Facebook – and anyone else who operates an Internet platform – to “demonstrate that there are systems in place to identify and remove illegal content”.
Facebook doesn’t have to find all that stuff and get rid of every last bit of it – Facebook is really big! But it would have to prove that it took a lot of time and money trying to do this.
In turn, Zuckerberg said, Facebook and anyone else who abides by it could maintain the protection of Section 230, a fundamental law that allows online platforms to host user-uploaded content without assuming responsibility for that content .
On the one hand, this seems like a pretty simple suggestion. After all, Facebook and other major platforms like YouTube and Twitter already have systems in place that they can use to monitor copyright infringement on their property. Why shouldn’t they have systems that do the same for “illegal content”?
(It should be noted here that in the early days of the platforms, their main concern was to avoid the copyright claims that stalled Napster; the notion that the platforms might contain content that could encourage genocide or destabilize democracy only then find much approval a decade later.)
On the other hand, this is not easy at all. It’s more or less clear when something is against copyright law. But it won’t be at all clear what kind of content is “illegal” – and waiting for Congress, which can’t find any bipartisan agreement on anything at all, to decide exactly what Facebook should allow on its properties, Facebook means me will wait a very long time to know what these guidelines are.
Which, as you may argue, is fine with Facebook if you believe Facebook just wants to look like it wants to partner with Congress and hope that the momentum for regulating technology will wear off one day.
Another, but equally realpolitical view: Facebook assumes that there will be some sort of reform of Section 230, and if a path is laid down that it deems acceptable, it has a better chance of getting that result when it comes to Negotiations with legislators and their employees go. (Noteworthy: Neither Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai, nor Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, who also gave a virtual testimony at Thursday’s hearing, asked Congress to amend Section 230 at all.)
Critics will also point out that creating such rules and systems is nowhere near as much of a problem for Facebook as it is for smaller companies with Internet platforms. (Remember, Washington fined $ 5 billion and a bunch of new privacy policies on Facebook two years ago, and Facebook kept going uninterrupted because $ 5 billion isn’t a lot of money for Facebook.) But there this is not the case As a new criticism, the company has an answer ready: Someone – certainly not Facebook – should find out the “definitions of an adequate system” that “could be proportional to the platform size”.
Let’s be clear: Facebook doesn’t want the government to tell it what to do. It was happy (ish) to close deals to pay Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp to use its content in America. In Australia, Facebook had a seizure when it was forced to do the same by local regulators.
What Facebook wants, however, are legal guard rails and the promise that if it sticks to them, it can run its very profitable business. It is a very small cost to ask Congress to set this up – even if, or especially if, it takes a long time.