Facebook’s worst sins cannot be easily regulated away

October 8, 2021, 10:14 AM UTC

Good morning. David Meyer here in Berlin, filling in for Alan.

As someone with a longstanding interest in tech-infused power—I even wrote a book on the subject several years ago, called Control Shift—I’ve been watching the latest Facebook omnishambles with a gnawing feeling inside. The thing that’s bugging me is that I can’t see any obvious solution to the problems highlighted by whistleblower Frances Haugen and the many ex-internal critics that preceded her.

It is clear that something must be done. With Facebook remaining entirely under the control of Mark Zuckerberg, who is arguably the source of the rot, it’s too late to fall back on any notion that the company will voluntarily change its ways. It’s also too late to wait for the market to fix Facebook before it does a lot more damage to society; while younger people are turning to TikTok, Facebook remains central to the lives of billions, and will remain so for a long time yet.

That leaves regulation. As regular readers will have gleaned, I am no opponent of this concept, as long as it is well crafted and properly enforced. In the case of Facebook, though, the rules that are on the table don’t feel like they would entirely fix the problem.

That’s not to say they won’t help. As the New York Times reported Wednesday, Haugen has been talking to European lawmakers who are already steering new Big-Tech-crackdown bills through the legislative process, and what she has to say will surely bolster their case as they do so. Of particular relevance is the new Digital Services Act, which will force the likes of Facebook to scrub their platforms of illegal content, such as hate speech, and to be transparent about how they moderate content. Transparency would represent a major advance—for one thing, it could make future whistleblowing less necessary.

Less directly relevant, but perhaps more impactful, is the Digital Markets Act that is also under discussion. This would force a “gatekeeper” such as Facebook to allow interoperability with rival platforms, theoretically making it easier for people to leave. Again, that would be great for both users and innovation, while limiting Facebook’s ability to further entrench its position. Haugen’s testimony makes it less likely that these measures will be watered down, and it might even lead to their strengthening.

However, the most disturbing elements of Facebook’s activities, as revealed by Haugen and others, are essentially moral failings: being aware of Instagram’s damaging effects on the mental health of young people but rather prioritizing profit; allowing the spread of misinformation that costs lives in the context of the pandemic; being a tool of genocide in Myanmar. These are awful, rotten things, but their illegality isn’t so easy to pin down. And that makes them hard to regulate in a fair, consistent way that is compatible with free expression.

What’s more, not all these failings are exclusive to Facebook. TikTok is also a cesspit of hate speech. YouTube’s algorithms are also conducive to radicalization (though we should be wary of painting that picture with too broad a brush). If Facebook’s platforms were to be forcibly separated, there’s nothing to suggest they wouldn’t continue being malevolent, as Haugen herself has argued.

Facebook deserves and ought to be hit with tough new regulations, not least so we can better understand what it is doing to us, and how. But its worst flaws are ultimately down to profit-driven exploitation of the most dangerous aspects of online existence, in particular the tendency toward filter bubbles and the pressure on people to live life as a marketable package. Let’s not kid ourselves that we can simply regulate the poisons of polarization, hatred and self-loathing out of our societies. We need different tools for that.

News below.

David Meyer



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This edition of CEO Daily was edited by David Meyer.

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