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Facebook calls on governments to help control content on the Internet

French censoring Facebook 2015

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has asked governments and regulators to play a more active role in developing new rules for the internet.

In an op-ed for the Washington Post, Zuck claimed that the current rules of the internet have served his generation of entrepreneurs well, but “it’s time to update these rules to define clear responsibilities for people, companies and governments going forward.” He argued that companies like Facebook should not make daily judgments on the nature of all the content going through its platform just by themselves. “I believe we need a more active role for governments and regulators,” Zuckerberg said. For what he called the new rules for the internet, Zuckerberg proposed that the parties involved in the governance of the internet should focus on four areas.

“Harmful content” came on top of his list. Zuckerberg conceded that Facebook is having too much power over speech, and believed there is a need for an independent oversight body, dubbed by some media as a “Facebook Supreme Court”, which the company is building up. “First, it will prevent the concentration of too much decision-making within our teams. Second, it will create accountability and oversight. Third, it will provide assurance that these decisions are made in the best interests of our community and not for commercial reasons,” Zuckerberg explained the rationale when the content governance and enforcement plan was published last November.

Zuckerberg also cited the example of the company’s collaboration with the French government to highlight the Facebook’s willingness to work with regulators. Starting from January Facebook has hosted a group of French senior civil servants including those from the telecom regulator l’Arcep (Autorité de régulation des communications électroniques et des Postes) or the Ministry of Justice, whereby they can identify Facebook’s good practice that the delegation can approve. Incidentally, France raised nearly 38,000 requests for Facebook pages to be taken down in 2015, by far the highest number of all countries, according to a stat by Statista from a few years back, cited by the French media outlet Le Journal du Net (JDN) (pictured).

Second on Zuckerberg’s list is “election integrity”. Recognising the significant role Facebook data, and the misuse of it, has played in recent political campaigns, the company is implementing new rules related to political ads, in the run-up to the European Parliamentary election in May. Users are able to search who is behind a certain ad, how much is paid, the number of times the ad has been viewed, as well as the demographics of those that have viewed it. The “Ads Library” will be stored by Facebook for seven years.

However, Zuckerberg also recognised both the difficulty of identifying political ads (“deciding whether an ad is political isn’t always straightforward”), and the inadequacy of the current rules on political campaigns including online political advertising. Therefore, he was calling for both common standards for verifying political actors, and for updates on the laws to keep up with the fast-changing online realities. At about the same time, Facebook published a post to explain how “Why am I seeing this post?” and “Why am I seeing this ad?” work, to further its efforts to be more transparent.

“Privacy” is the next on Zuckerberg’s list. He focused on the topic of privacy in a long post recently, so he did not spell out the measures Facebook is taking. Instead, Zuckerberg was calling on governments and regulators from all countries to develop a common global framework modelled on the GDPR regime in the EU.

Last on the list is “data portability”, i.e. users should be able to seamlessly and securely move their data from one platform to another. This is centred on the Data Transfer Project (DTP) that Facebook is contributing to, together with Google, Microsoft, and Twitter, and is not directly related to governments or regulators. The project aims to build “a common framework with open-source code that can connect any two online service providers”. When the user initiates a data transfer request, DTP will use the “services’ existing APIs and authorization mechanisms to access data. It then uses service specific adapters to transfer that data into a common format, and then back into the new service’s API.”

Zuckerberg has extended plenty of goodwill recently, and there is no reason to question his sincerity. However, in addition to the lack of implementation details in his proposal, his call for actively working with governments and regulators can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, a global oversight body could be able to define a set of common rules that all internet companies can be regulated by and assessed on. On the other hand, how to avoid being dictated by the agenda of individual governments, especially in countries where the demarcation between politicians and professional, supposedly neutral civil servants is less clear, is a hard question to answer. For example, how fundamentally different is Facebook’s collaboration with the French government from Google’s clandestine efforts to satisfy the Chinese government’s censorship requests?

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