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Fast Charge: Facebook wants to have its cake and eat it too

Facebook this week released a reflective white paper on the future of internet regulation. It juggles some pretty important questions about the relationships between governments and big tech, as well as making one or two questionable statements. 

At times the white paper on internet regulation – which Facebook called ‘Charting a Way Forward’ – seemed genuine and well-thought out. Equally often though, it felt like a self-important undergraduate essay – or the ravings of a spoilt child – convinced it knows better than everyone else.

Take this excerpt, for example:

“Private internet platforms […] hear from users who want the companies to reduce abuse but not infringe upon freedom of expression. They hear from governments, who want companies to remove not only illegal content but also legal content that may contribute to harm, but make sure that they are not biased in their adoption or application of rules.

Faced with concerns about bullying or child sexual exploitation or terrorist recruitment, for instance, governments may find themselves doubting the effectiveness of a company’s efforts to combat such abuse or, worse, unable to satisfactorily determine what those efforts are.”

That basically reads: ‘People have complex and varied expectations of Facebook but don’t give us any credit for our regulatory work.’ Will you fetch the violin? Is your heart bleeding for Facebook yet?

Related: How to delete a Facebook account

No? How unsympathetic of you, Facebook might say.

However, it is true that a company that routinely racks up profits of around $6bn is probably better equipped and resourced than most organisations to deal with the varied and complex regulatory expectations placed upon it.

Facebook claims it has been openly asking for more regulation and, in between mixed messages, it has.

Mark Zuckerberg wrote a piece with the headline ‘Big Tech Needs More Regulation’ for the Financial Times − Facebook also posted the piece up on its media site.

However, Zuckerberg and Facebook only seem to want regulation that’s tailor made for them. It’s sort of like coming up with the idea to introduce the police service but deciding that you, having come up with that idea, should also write all the laws.

Elsewhere in its white paper, Facebook begrudges the differences between nations and how, if everyone were to just have the same laws and opinions and values, it would be much easier to regulate social media.

“The variation among laws is significant because it underscores the difficulty of weighing competing values like safety and expression. If governments do not agree on how to balance these interests when writing laws, it is likely they will have very different ideas of how to define online content standards, which require even more specificity than laws in order to ensure consistent application.

“In the United States, for example, the First Amendment protects a citizen’s ability to engage in dialogue online without government interference except in the narrowest of circumstances. Citizens in other countries often have different expectations about freedom of expression, and governments have different expectations about platform accountability.

“Unfortunately, some of the laws passed so far do not always strike the appropriate balance between speech and harm, unintentionally pushing platforms to err too much on the side of removing content.”

While it’s entirely true that this makes Facebook’s regulatory duties more difficult, it’s hardly likely to lead to every nation banding together under some unified, Zuckerberg-inspired legal code.

It comes off very high and mighty too, particularly that third paragraph, which reads like a cringeworthy mix of American exceptionalism and Facebook’s ever-present corporate ego. (Would Facebook have easily found “the appropriate balance” if it were in charge of law-making in all these countries? The execs there seem to think so.)

With more of that characteristic modesty, Facebook’s white paper urges regulators to be cautious in dealing with social media and the wider internet.

Another section reads:

In adopting this approach, however, regulators must be cautious. Specific product design mandates—’put this button here,’ ‘use this wording,’ etc. — will make it harder for internet companies to test what options work best for users. It will also make it harder for companies to tailor the reporting experience to the device being used: the best way to report content while using a mobile phone is likely to differ from the best way to report content while using a laptop. In fact, we have found that certain requests from regulators to structure our reporting mechanisms in specific ways have actually reduced the likelihood that people will report dangerous content to us quickly.”

Sounds an awful lot like: ‘Don’t tell us what to do. Don’t tell us where to put things. We know better than you.’

In a similar vein, another section asks any governments considering regulating Facebook and the internet to “provide flexibility”. While the paper provides reasonable justification for this – to do with ever-changing language choices around bullying and terror groups – it just sounds like another cry of ‘we know best!’

So, Facebook wants to be regulated, but doesn’t want to be told what to do? This is going to be tricky.

Fast Charge is our weekly mobile-focussed column – albeit not all that mobile focussed this week – where we delve deeper into the world of smartphones, wearables and more. Find it on Trusted Reviews every Saturday morning.

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