Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg calls for new rules to govern the internet

1 Apr 2019

Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook. Image: Frederic Legrand – COMEO/Shutterstock

Facebook chief realises the social network cannot go it alone in combating harmful content and safeguarding privacy.

The saying goes that if Facebook were a country, it would be the biggest country by population on Earth. It’s a dated, jaded kind of way of saying how big Facebook is but, with 2.3bn people living their lives through the lens of Facebook’s various apps including Messenger, Instagram, WhatsApp and the social network itself, it has great responsibility.

At the weekend, in an op-ed featured in various newspapers around the world, Zuckerberg admitted what the social network has been in denial about for too long: it cannot do all of this by itself.

‘Lawmakers often tell me we have too much power over speech, and frankly I agree’

From Cambridge Analytica to actual murders due to incitement, fear and rumour, the dark underbelly of the internet has come to reside in places such as the comment sections on Facebook and YouTube, and these companies are struggling to keep up with the problem technologically and through human resources.

Zuckerberg issued a plea for governments and regulators to hep rein in the internet, including Facebook. “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.”

In a refreshing change of tack from the buttoned-up lawyers and lobbyists browbeating governments into doing things the Facebook way, Zuckerberg has actually shown humility and rightly reasons that different companies taking different approaches to the same problem is getting us nowhere.

With power comes responsibility

Zuckerberg correctly points out that the internet is a major part of our lives and, as such, Facebook and companies like it have immense responsibilities.

But he called for a more active role by governments and regulators, and echoed a sentiment by the inventor of the world wide web, Tim Berners-Lee, in recent weeks that by updating the rules for the internet, “we can preserve what’s best about it”. This includes giving entrepreneurs the freedom to build new things while at the same time protecting society from broader harms.

Zuckerberg called for regulation in four areas: harmful content, election integrity, privacy and data portability.

“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 standardised approach.”

He noted that Facebook is creating an independent body so people can appeal its decisions and it is working with French officials to ensure the effectiveness of its content review systems.

Zuckerberg urged other companies to follow Facebook’s lead in terms of creating a searchable political ad archive and called for transparency around political ads. “Deciding whether an ad is political isn’t always straightforward. Our systems would be more effective if regulation created common standards for verifying political actors.”

Zuckerberg said that it would be good for the internet if more countries adopted regulations such as GDPR as a common framework.

“New privacy regulation in the United States and around the world should build on the protections GDPR provides. It should protect your right to choose how your information is used, while enabling companies to use information for safety purposes and to provide services. It shouldn’t require data to be stored locally, which would make it more vulnerable to unwarranted access. And it should establish a way to hold companies such as Facebook accountable by imposing sanctions when we make mistakes.”

Zuckerberg also called for regulations that guarantee the principle of data portability, which enables people to freely shift their data between services. “True data portability should look more like the way people use our platform to sign into an app than the existing ways you can download an archive of your information. But this requires clear rules about who’s responsible for protecting information when it moves between services.”

He also said that Facebook is supporting a standard data transfer format and the open source Data Transfer Project.

Zuckerberg’s appeal for regulation is timely. The internet has become part of the sinews of our lives one way or another, for how we work and how we live. But it has also surfaced ugly truths about people and their worst inclinations.

A recent report in The Irish Times on the stresses endured by Facebook moderators in Dublin contracted by CPL earning less than €32,000 a year (while the average Facebook employee is paid €134,000 per annum), who have to view and classify harmful content, makes for harrowing reading.

No one in support of an industry that is growing rapidly likes the sound of regulation, but the internet has become a mirror of humanity and, in the name of decency and the protection of lives, it requires intervention. This is not about censorship, but a realisation that what happens on the internet is just as tangible and real as what happens in our homes or on the street outside our window.

After a horrible year – and no doubt a lot of self-reflection – Zuckerberg is finally talking sense.

Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook. Image: Frederic Legrand – COMEO/Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years