Zuckerberg wants support - does he have friends to help out?

via Flickr © mkhmarketing (CC BY 2.0)

via Flickr © mkhmarketing (CC BY 2.0)

  • It’s almost a plea for regulation from a huge corporate - and you don’t hear that very often
  • Zuckerberg has decided that the ‘Internet’ needs closer regulation and a clean-up
  • It’s an inevitable conclusion rather than an about-turn

You might suspect “April Fool” upon hearing the news that Facebook founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, is now pushing for government rules for social media. That might be why Zuck decided to spring the bombshell on Saturday rather than today.  No fool him.

In a couple of newspaper op-eds and a blog post, Zuck signaled what might be his ‘wake up and smell the coffee’ moment as regards Facebook’s privacy problems and the social harms it appears to be responsible for.

Step back and add them all up: there’s the 2016 presidential election and all the fake news disseminated on Facebook which many believe played a part in swinging the election to Trump; there’s the Cambridge Analytica data privacy scandal unearthed a couple of years later; and most recently there’s the obscene live streaming of the terrorist attack in Christchurch New Zealand and the subsequent propagation of the footage - over 2 million instances of it found on Facebook alone.

Those are the biggies, now insert the everyday Facebook related tragedies grabbing local headlines around the world - young girls being spurred on to suicide after watching material on Facebook, young men being drawn into extremist organisations; the general slide into conspiracy theory around issues such as vaccination; and much more.

It all adds up to a snootful of problems for Zuckerberg -  little wonder he now appears to be looking for a regulator to regulate and take the heat; and a policeman to help enforce whatever it is the regulator comes up with.

“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, “ says Zuckerberg.

These are the issues sure to give Facebook the most trouble.

At the beginning of the Facebook story Zuckerberg could take refuge in ‘free expression’. It wasn’t for Facebook to take sides over things like ‘harmful content’. After all, who was to decide what was harmful and what not, what was hate speech and what was political expression? What was click-bait and what wasn’t; what was fake news and what was just alternative facts?

So to avoid that trap, Facebook had several goes at getting the users themselves to control their news feeds via elaborate content marking schemes. The idea was that they could steer the content they actually wanted to see to their own feeds.

That didn’t really work and it didn’t really tackle the worst content awfulness -  like viral decapitations, either. What to do next?

Ideally, Facebook doesn’t want to be the arbiter of what’s acceptable and what’s not. That’s a sure road to general unpopularity. Instead it wants rules that are imposed and policed, as much as possible, from the outside.

“We continually review our policies with experts, but at our scale we’ll always make mistakes and decisions that people disagree with,” explains Zuckerberg.

“Lawmakers often tell me we have too much power over speech, and frankly I agree. I’ve come to believe that we shouldn’t make so many important decisions about speech on our own. So we’re creating an independent body so people can appeal our decisions. We’re also working with governments, including French officials, on ensuring the effectiveness of content review systems.”

And Zuckerberg is anxious to share the blame; and the regulatory oversight. So it’s not Facebook that has the problem, but the ‘Internet’

“Internet companies should be accountable for enforcing standards on harmful content. It’s impossible to remove all harmful content from the internet, but when people use dozens of different sharing services — all with their own policies and processes — we need a more standardized approach.

“One idea is for third-party bodies to set standards governing the distribution of harmful content and measure companies against those standards. Regulation could set baselines for what’s prohibited and require companies to build systems for keeping harmful content to a bare minimum,” he concludes.

Whether politicians and enforcement officials (whatever they might be) are keen to be drawn into being Facebook rule givers and therefore part-responsible for the behavioural outcome, is going to be interesting to see.

They might prefer to force Facebook to fix the problem itself... or else swallow a huge fine.

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