One of Facebook’s top executives added his voice to the growing movement among technology firms that the sector cannot police the internet on its own. And in a statement that Facebook itself acknowledges may seem “counterintuitive,” the world’s biggest social media firm says that it “wants to be regulated”—so long as the rules are “smart.”
In a speech in Berlin on Monday, Sir Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president of global affairs and communications and a former deputy prime minister of the United Kingdom, said that because “the internet wasn’t planned” and that there were “no blueprints” as to how tech firms should be regulated, “this new world requires new rules to be written.”
“The internet does need competition and it does need regulation,” said Clegg. “That’s why we want to work with governments and policymakers to design the sort of smart regulation that fosters competition, encourages innovation, and protects consumers.”
Specifically, Facebook wants regulators to come up with “smart regulation,” especially around areas such as data portability that will more easily enable users to take the data held on them by a private company (as well as the data relating to their “connections” on social media sites) and move it elsewhere without fears of infringing data rules, namely the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
“Those rules shouldn’t be left to private companies to decide for themselves,” he said.
Clegg’s comments come a couple of months after Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg similarly advocated for “a more active role for governments and regulators” when it comes to policing the internet.
Clegg said that there is now a “greater suspicion of tech” and warned that “the danger is that suspicion turns into a phobia of tech altogether,” especially regarding concerns about how data is collected, stored, and shared.
“My fear is that the often exaggerated and lopsided debate that now exists around tech may lead to the baby being thrown out with the bath water,” said Clegg, who added that there needs to be “a more honest debate about what social media is and what it isn’t; what it can fairly be held responsible for and what it can’t.”
While accepting that some criticisms of Facebook were “legitimate” and “justified,” Clegg downplayed their impact and significance, in particular around sharing (and selling) user data to third parties, manipulating voter sentiment and inciting violence (such as the Myanmar government’s campaign to incite violence against Rohingya Muslims via Facebook and other social media platforms).
He also dismissed calls by U.S. and EU regulators to break the company up over competition concerns. “Just because it is difficult to regulate the internet doesn’t mean policy makers should jump to the alternative of wishing these companies away,” he said.
Clegg also expressed fears that criticism of tech and social media firms may lead to individual countries imposing draconian rules on how the internet should be governed, as is the case in China and Russia and other “authoritarian regimes.”
Facebook has been roundly rebuked for its failures to implement appropriate measures to take down harmful content or delete malicious and suspicious accounts, forcing the company to take swifter action. In recent years, the company has hired 30,000 people to identify “fake news” and take down malicious and harmful content—its failure to prevent the live-streaming of the New Zealand massacres, in which 51 people were killed, being the latest catalyst for action.
In the first three months of this year it removed 2.2 billion fake accounts. And following concerns that “fake news” interfered with the United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum campaign, political advertisers are also now required to verify their identities.
Facebook has also announced that it is setting up a new independent oversight board to review governance and compliance with the company’s “community standards.” It has recently published a draft charter, and a final charter will be released this summer.
Critics, however, have been left unimpressed. Tweeting in response to Facebook’s proposed solution of setting up an oversight committee, Labour MP Tom Watson, the shadow secretary of state for digital, culture, media, and sport, wrote that the speech “blames those who have raised concerns about cover up, corporate cover up, and market failure.”
Listening to Nick Clegg on the @BBCr4today answer for the dystopian world of Facebook - from live-streaming massacres to enabling suicides. Zuckerberg hired a former deputy PM so he could “understand Europe.” His proposed remedy? An oversight committee. Pull the other one.— Tom Watson (@tom_watson) June 24, 2019
In April, the U.K. government unveiled proposals to force tech companies to comply with a statutory duty of care that would also make tech bosses personally liable for compliance failings. The European Union is also considering ways to make social media companies directly liable for harmful content, possibly through fines.