Friday Rant - will 2021 be the year we finally tame Facebook? Don't hold your breath...

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan January 8, 2021
The UK, US and EU all have 'taming Facebook' action in the works. Will this be the year that the beast is caged?

(via Pixabay)

Fancy a fresh challenge for 2021? Nick Clegg, Facebook’s Apologist-in-Chief, looks to be swelling the ranks of his army of avatars as regulators around the world ramp up efforts to rein in the social media behemoth. At the tail end of last year, the firm advertised for a number of new lobbyist and PR-related positions in its London office. Successful applicants will be tasked with bolstering Facebook’s position, improving its public image and fending off efforts to impose unwelcome regulatory restrictions.

So if you fancy being a Director of International Public Affairs Marketing and believe you have what it takes to make communications “more targeted, persuasive and effective”, step right up. Or maybe your skill set is to “engage and build relationships with policymakers” working with or in “government, politics or a regulatory agency”, in which case Facebook’s after a Public Policy Manager for WhatsApp. Or perhaps you’re the ideal candidate to be a Content Policy Manager, so long as you’re confident that you know how to “govern what people can share” on Facebook. Right this way, folks! 

Of course similar roles exist inside every enterprise tech provider, so there’s nothing inherently sinister about Facebook beefing up its ranks in that respect. But the timing is interesting as 2021 sees regulators in the US, the UK and the EU all set to up the pressure on the firm. Clegg needs all the help he can get.

Don’t play with matches

But then again, Facebook’s been threatened with regulatory reprisals time and again and nothing much has ever really come to pass. Even a hopeless communicator like Mark Zuckerberg has been able to outwit the grandstanding politicos who have  puffed themselves up, rattled their sabres and publicly declared they’re going to bring him to his knees. We saw that with various Congressional hearings in the US or with his token appearance in front of EU leaders as part of the seemingly never-ending and certainly never-delivering great Mea Culpa global tour of the past couple of years.

Courtesy of freedom of information efforts by The Bureau of Journalism, the release of minutes relating to a 2018 meeting with a senior politician in the UK provides some valuable insight into how these unavoidable collisions with policymakers tend to go behind closed doors. In public, Matt Hancock, then the UK Minister for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, threw himself in front of every TV camera crew who couldn't move fast enough,  to assure the British electorate that he wasn’t going to tolerate the way Facebook operated, declare that it was time for tough, really really tough, legislation and boast that fortunately he was the very fellow to hold their “feet to the fire”.

But in private, when told directly by Zuckerberg that the UK government was “anti-tech” and that he might withdraw expansion from the country - this at a time when Hancock was frantically trying to big up tech investment for post-Brexit Britain - the ‘feet to the fire’ Minister suddenly remembered what he’d been told about not playing with matches, stuffed the firelighters into his desk drawer alongside his spine and started talking about “collaborative working to ensure legislation is proportionate and innovation-friendly.” In other words, 'Tell me how tough you want me to be, Mr Zuckerberg, please and thank you very much.'.

Some might regard that as craven capitulation on the part of a posturing politician who wasn’t fit to meet his brief, but I’ll leave it to others to come to their own conclusion. Whatever your point of view, it’s a telling insight that confirms a lot of fears around the ‘taming Facebook’ agenda that’s a common rhetorical theme around the globe. As noted above, there’s a lot coming down the pipeline this year on that front.

  • In the UK, there are plans for legislation that will require social platforms to have clear policies for content that is illegal, harmful or just plain misleading, with regulator Ofcom given the power to fine companies up to £18 million ($23 million) or 10% of global turnover, whichever is higher, for breaches.
  • In the US late last year the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and a coalition of 48 US states filed suit against Facebook alleging that it has engaged in anti-competitive behaviour and abused its market position to crush potential rivals and raising the prospect of breaking up the company.
  • Meanwhile in the EU, the Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act are coming down the track. Under the Digital Services Act, online platforms have new responsibilities over the content they host, with fines of up to 6% of global revenue for a serious breach of the rules, while the Digital Markets Act is built around new pro-competition measures, with penalties of 10% of global revenue.

None of these moves is remotely Facebook-friendly to say the least. For his part, Apologist-in-Chief Clegg - or Facebook VP of Global Affairs and Communications as he’s sometimes known in the day job - is still making all the politically correct noises his job description requires, insisting that it is perfectly understandable that governments want to regulate tech, but that really the “most effective and intelligent approach” would be not to try and micro-manage every post online and just let Facebook get on with enforcing its own community standards.

Underlying motives

It’s remotely possible that this might sound reasonable enough - and people do like to agree with Nick, a trait that caused a lot of damage on the UK political scene once upon a time -  until you consider the firm’s decision to seize the opportunity to shift oversight of data belonging to its British users from Ireland to the US and thus away from the irritating constraints of GDPR, using Brexit as an excuse.  Again, form your own opinion - is this a perfectly reasonable development that tells us nothing about Facebook’s underlying mindset or is it an indication that this is a firm that will grab every opportunity to shake off the shackles of regulation at the first possible opportunity?

As I was writing this piece, the Trump-enabled riots in Washington were taking place and in their wake came the inevitable blame questions about the role of social platforms  in such situations. In the event, both Facebook and Twitter eventually took decisive actions of varying degrees to remove some of the President’s incendiary comments from their platforms - and credit where it’s due on the decision by Facebook on a ban of indeterminate length - but the wider questions of content responsibility won’t go away.

One of the recurring themes of the dying weeks of the Trump regime was the President’s obsession with Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which provides firms like Facebook with legal protection over content posted by users and exempts them from liability over what is shared on their platforms. There’s a strong case to be made for this to be revisited and some modification made that still protects First Amendment freedoms. But Trump’s position was Section 230 had to go completely and immediately, calling it “a serious threat to our national security and election integrity”. He even threatened to veto the National Defense Authorization Act unless repeal of the provisions was included.

Trump was overruled by Congress and now he’s been shown the exit door from the White House, so he won’t be getting his own way on that point, but Section 230 and its future is something that the Biden regime will want to return to. Trump’s mistake was to go in too hard and heavy on demands for repeal and to bundle it in the defense legislation. In reality, approached more reasonably, addressing the regulatory scope of Section 230 is likely to be a bi-partisan issue that would find supporters on both sides of the aisle.

It would also hold Facebook’s feet to the fire in a way that the UK’s hapless Hancock never could, no matter how long he rubbed two sticks together. Zuckerberg has protested that he in fact supports reform to Section 230, insisting that “Congress should update the law to make sure it’s working as intended.” Let’s put that to the test. Call his bluff and watch him wriggle. Add another item to Clegg’s ‘to do’ list.

For his part, Biden is known to be pro-regulation when it comes to social media, but much will depend of course on how high a priority such regulation is on his own ‘to do’ list, which with COVID et al is clearly going to be long enough. That said, there is one interesting point to note. The UK’s plans to regulating social platforms content mentioned above have been shaped by the recommendations of a government-appointed task force into digital competition. Known as the Furman Review, this was headed up by Jason Furman, an American who most recently acted as an adviser to Biden in his Presidential campaign. It is, as ever, who you know…

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