Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Picture: JOSH EDELSON / AFP
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Picture: JOSH EDELSON / AFP

Washington — Mark Zuckerberg’s call for stepped up government oversight of the internet met a sceptical response from privacy advocates and other critics who are frustrated with Facebook’s repeated missteps and say that its billionaire CEO should not get to make the rules.

“I don’t think it’s ultimately for Mark Zuckerberg to decide how much regulation Mark Zuckerberg is prepared to accept,” said Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Centre, which has lodged numerous complaints about the company’s handling of personal data.

Zuckerberg’s policy gambit is likely to inflame the debate in Washington over how to rein in Facebook and other social media companies, including whether the US should adopt the European standard as it drafts a national privacy law. It could also deepen rifts within tech industry ranks, especially if efforts arise to narrow the exemption from responsibility for content posted by users on their platforms that companies such as Alphabet’s Google and Facebook enjoy.

Zuckerberg’s proposal over the weekend for government regulation of four broad areas — harmful content, election integrity, privacy and data portability — emerged as Facebook and other social media companies confront a crescendo of bipartisan criticism. Among other things, they are accused of exploiting personal data, allowing election meddling on their platforms and being slow to address online violence and hate speech.

The company’s founder unveiled his vision for regulation in a blog post just weeks after Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren urged the break-up of Facebook and other internet companies. Warren, a Massachusetts senator, said the businesses have amassed too much power and are damaging the economy and US democracy.

Roger McNamee, an early Facebook investor who is now one of the company’s loudest critics, said in an interview that Zuckerberg’s proposal “would mostly absolve it of responsibility without addressing the underlying causes of election interference, hate speech, disinformation and the various privacy challenges that have emerged”.

McNamee, who is the co-founder of investment fund Elevation Partners and the author of the book Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe, pointed to the company’s plans to merge the data sets of Instagram and WhatsApp with Facebook’s, which he said “would greatly complicate the task of protecting users’ privacy”.

Facebook is fighting multiple investigations around the globe, many of which were launched in 2018 in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, when it was revealed that the political consultancy with ties to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign had obtained data from millions of Facebook users without their consent.

Facebook has also been criticised for its failure in March to stop the spread of videos of an anti-Muslim massacre in New Zealand, which has spurred calls for content regulation. It has also been accused by the US department of housing & urban development of enabling bias in housing adverts.

“Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t get to make the rules anymore,” tweeted representative David Cicilline of Rhode Island, who chairs the Democratic policy and communications committee, in response to Zuckerberg’s blog post and Washington Post opinion piece. “Facebook is under criminal and civil investigation. It has shown it cannot regulate itself. Does anyone even want his advice?”

Nick Clegg, Facebook’s head of global affairs, said regulators around the world should agree on common standards to avoid a patchwork of regulations that can create a compliance minefield for international companies.

“There’s good regulation and there’s bad regulation,” said Clegg, a former UK deputy prime minister. “There’s sensible regulation and there’s unwelcome regulation.”

But some see Zuckerberg’s effort as a ploy to punt the company’s problems to the government and get out from under incessant bad publicity.

“They would very much like for people to stop being mad at them, and they’re willing to sacrifice any principle and make any compromise to make that happen,” said Jesse Blumenthal, who leads technology and innovation policy for the libertarian Koch network.

Blumenthal suggested Facebook is looking for a win-win. The company is inviting “a large and complicated regulatory regime” that would mollify angry policymakers, but ultimately protect the company’s market position by overwhelming upstart competitors, he said.

Brendan Carr, a Republican commissioner on the federal communications commission, tweeted that he was a “no” on Zuckerberg’s plan. “Outsourcing censorship to the government is not just a bad idea, it would violate the First Amendment,” Carr said.

Zuckerberg has said Facebook would roll out controls to users worldwide required under Europe’s privacy rule, known as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Some privacy activists said they hoped the executive’s promise would be a starting point to prompt legislators to push for tighter measures and reject other industry attempts to water down regulation.

National privacy law

“When lawmakers hear the head of Facebook say they would support a GDPR-style bill in the US, that’s important,’ said the Electronic Privacy Information Centre’s Rotenberg.

Rotenberg and Jeff Chester, executive director of the Centre for Digital Democracy, acknowledged the possibility that Zuckerberg could add momentum to a push for a national privacy law, but said that after years of scandals they have little faith in the company’s credibility to set the course of US policy and would need to hear more details about what Facebook is actually proposing.

Zuckerberg’s move is also not the first time Facebook has broken ranks with its internet brethren. In 2017, technology companies including Facebook and Google opposed an effort to curb online sex trafficking by making the companies liable when users posted content that facilitated sex trafficking on their platforms.

In November 2017, though, Facebook moved to support a more nuanced version of the measure that ultimately passed, but the internet platforms, which had once enjoyed a glowing reception in Washington as innovators driving economic growth, soon began grappling with tarnished reputations over their impact on society.

Zuckerberg’s bid for regulation sets Facebook on a more vocal course than Google and its other rivals over how to address harmful content or draft a federal privacy law. Industry groups are seeking a privacy measure that would be more palatable to US companies than the European regulation Zuckerberg advocates.

“It puts Google and others in a difficult spot,” said Chester. “How can they call for less privacy rights for Americans if one of the industry’s leaders says Congress needs to do better?”

The most contentious debates over privacy legislation in Congress centre around a question that Zuckerberg did not address head-on in his weekend sortie — whether a federal law would override California’s restrictive privacy rules. That’s an issue that has drawn active lobbying by industry groups, including several that include Facebook.

“Is this just another Mark mea culpa that he makes at times of company crises?” Chester said. “The real proof is not what you put in print today, but what the company does on the Hill tomorrow.”