By Ruth Vitale
On March 30, in an op-ed published in The Washington Post, the man who once coined the phrase “Move fast and break things” made a very public about-face. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg called for the internet to be regulated.
“Every day, we make decisions about what speech is harmful, what constitutes political advertising, and how to prevent sophisticated cyberattacks,” Zuckerberg wrote. “But if we were starting from scratch, we wouldn’t ask companies to make these judgments alone.”
Seemingly, this was a watershed moment. A concession by an online giant, after years of arguing precisely the opposite, that maybe it isn’t well-equipped to solve the problems it itself had created. That the time had come, Zuckerberg continued, for “a more active role for governments and regulators.”
This article grabbed headlines around the world, but it was hardly the first time Facebook had expressed a willingness to be regulated. In February, after a British parliamentary committee compared the company to “digital gangsters,” Facebook’s public policy manager Karim Palant signaled they were “open to meaningful regulation.” Those words, in turn, were restating a similar sentiment that Zuckerberg had been spouting since as far back as spring of 2018, when Facebook was in hot water over the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
Perhaps because we have heard it all before, we are skeptical of Zuckerberg’s big proclamation. Or perhaps we are just not that impressed by the sight of a CEO worth billions pleading for the government to step in and clean up his mess. Or perhaps, as some have suggested, there are even more sinister forces at play here.
Some, like legal scholar and former Obama administration official Cass Sunstein, are open to Zuckerberg’s plan. But, many others look at the proposal as an abdication of the company’s responsibility.
“By draping his essay in the guise of cooperation, Zuckerberg hopes to distract policymakers from the real threat,” wrote Roger McNamee, an early Facebook investor who has morphed into one of its fiercest critics. “Internet platforms like Facebook and Google dominate the public square in every country in which they operate… No one elected these companies and they refuse to be held accountable. That must change.”
Zuckerberg’s pining for a uniform set of rules to govern his public square seems like a grand gesture toward a kind of formal accountability – but the truth is, it is yet another opportunity for him to shirk responsibility. In the piece, he calls for a “globally harmonized framework,” which sounds nice but is an absurdly unrealistic goal. Can you think of a single thing that is “harmonized” across the world’s nearly 200 existing national governments, subject to a consistent set of regulatory guidelines that every country honors and upholds? Why would something as massively complicated as the entire internet be any different?
Exacerbating this delusion, Zuckerberg recommends his proposed regulation formulate around not one, not two, but four primary concerns: “harmful content, election integrity, privacy, and data portability.” Any one of these concerns on their own would pose a logistical nightmare around which to legislate. If Zuckerberg’s plan is to wait for the nearly 200 existing national governments to come together around all of them, he’s going to be waiting a long time – which is precisely his plan. The buck officially passed, he can now sit back and continue doing what he has been doing – evading any “meaningful” regulation until the world finally agrees on his impossibly lofty set of regulatory ideals.
In essence, Zuckerberg has presented us with a fantasy, offering little in the way of specifics and leaving out other, equally crucial regulatory categories entirely – such as unfair competition and market monopolization within the internet industry. It is not surprising, of course, that Zuckerberg does not want to talk about antitrust, but shouldn’t his list at least include the regulation of artificial intelligence – the force behind the algorithms that steer and essentially control our online lives? Or what about CreativeFuture’s core issue of piracy, an internet plague that affects the livelihoods of millions of people?
Much like Facebook shirking accountability, Zuckerberg’s op-ed shirks these crucial details because, deep down, he cannot begin to know what regulation of Facebook (and Google, who has yet to release an official statement on all of this) really looks like.
Neither do we! We would not dream of pretending otherwise – and when it comes to piracy and copyright protection, we are not about to wait around for a global consensus to figure it out for us. Creatives simply cannot afford to do that.
Maybe Facebook can afford to wait around, but it should not. If any company is best equipped to solve the problems on Facebook and Google’s platforms, it is Facebook and Google. Both of them have more than enough capital – both human and financial – to step up and do a lot more right now. Zuckerberg could split hairs on what constitutes “harmful content” and keep asking the government to figure out how to clean up the mess he has made, or he could devote more of his company’s hundreds of billions of dollars toward actually fixing something.
We suggest using piracy as a test run, because it directly harms millions of hardworking creative professionals and because, unlike Zuckerberg’s proposal in general, it is a clearly articulated problem that leaves little room for debate. Copyright is a non-partisan issue, and protecting copyrighted materials from theft is an action that politicians on both sides of the aisle can agree benefits us all.
What’s more, if Facebook and Google were to get more serious about finding a permanent solution to piracy, it would free up a lot of energy and brain power within both companies, where way too many people spend their days putting out fires within the patchwork infrastructure of a broken content protection system. Their plates cleared, these intelligent staffers could then commit themselves to the tougher, more intractable issues garnering negative headlines day after day – including Zuckerberg’s four proposed areas of regulation.
Which leads us to one last reason why we can’t put much faith in Zuckerberg’s call for regulation – because Google and Facebook have a poor track record of supporting any legislation that could affect their respective bottom lines. In fact, they have a deep history of investing vast resources in preserving the status quo.
So, let’s not let Zuckerberg’s op-ed distract us from what is already right in front of us: the tools and the means to fight the greatest problems on the internet lie with its greatest purveyors. Facebook and Google could address the rampant piracy on their platforms today. After all, unlike the complicated work of actually moderating people’s “harmful” speech, this is cut and dried – it’s against the law. These companies could work with creatives like never before, fostering a new, global community of advocates who could speak to their good will, rather than against us.
Or, they could keep stalling by asking the governments of the world to all sit down and fix Facebook’s problems for them. If so, we hope those governments will refrain from taking the bait. #StandCreative