You’ve got to give Facebook bonus points for sheer nerve. After years of blandishments about self-regulation, suddenly it’s all down to world governments to keep the firm in check - and by implication, their fault that Facebook’s been naughty in the past.
In a new variation on the ‘mea culpa’ global messaging plan, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who didn’t seem so keen on external regulation when grilled by lawmakers in the US and the European Union last year, is now a convert to the responsibilities of those same legislators.
Following this Damascene conversion, Zuck now wants government to step up with new laws regarding “harmful content, election integrity, privacy and data portability.”
In an article for the Washington Post, Zuckerberg suggests that Facebook has done its bit and it’s time for others to step up:
Every day we make decisions about what speech is harmful, what constitutes political advertising, and how to prevent sophisticated cyber-attacks. These are important for keeping our community safe. But if we were starting from scratch, we wouldn’t ask companies to make these judgments alone. I believe we need a more active role for governments and regulators.
What’s brought about this sudden enthusiasm for being regulated? Look no further than the recent horrific slaughter in New Zealand, when a white supremacist was able to livestream his barbarism via Facebook. That, suggest critics, has been the final tipping point.
So what’s a repentant Zuckerberg after? Well, there are some pretty substantial about turns on the agenda. Take GDPR, for example. Zuckerberg’s always had an ambiguous stance on this EU legislation. Prior to its introduction into law, Facebook users in Europe were going to be afforded its protections, but not their US counterparts. Then, as legislative scrutiny increased post the Cambridge Analytica scandal, that stance morphed into an acceptance that actually they would.
Now Zuck’s a big GDPR fan and wants to see more like it:
I believe it would be good for the internet if more countries adopted regulation such as GDPR as a common framework.
Can leopards change their spots?
I detect the hand of Facebook’s Vice-President for Global Affairs and Communications, Nick Clegg in all this. Zuckerberg’s Apologist-in-Chief has been out and about all weekend pitching the party line, telling Politico among others:
Mark Zuckerberg has become more anxious that Facebook is being asked to regulate itself in a way that no private company should be expected to do. He’s been asked to preside over areas that he can't do on his own.
Poor Zuck! If only someone had staged an intervention earlier, everything might have turned out differently. But better late than never. If they play their cards right here, there could be a reality TV show in all this. Stick it on MTV - get the kids back onto Facebook! Every cloud etc.
Meanwhile the ‘mea culpa’ world tour continues as Clegg echoes his master’s voice - or is it the other way around, I wonder? - arguing:
Politicians will have to assume their own responsibility. Global leaders need to grapple with these ideas. If not, we will get an ever-more Balkanized internet.
Today Zuckerberg drops in on the Irish Government to try and convince legislators that he’s sincere about his Washington Post call for action. Even though the Irish data protection authoritiies have a number of open inquiries into the firm’s actions, it’s unlikely to be a particularly troubling visit for him - Facebook’s investment in Ireland as its European HQ will see to that.
And there are no plans for him to slip across the Irish Sea to take up that long-standing - and still rejected - invitation from the UK Government to pop in for a grilling.
At the heart of all this is a question that needs to be answered - are legislators comfortable with being told by Zuckerberg how much regulatory change he’s willing to accept?
Getting out in front of the story is PR 101 and something that Facebook has totally failed to do for the past couple of years. Clegg’s new role is an attempt to change that and to take charge of the debate. That’s not something that can be allowed to happen. Facebook doesn’t get to make the rules or set the agenda.
One final thought. One of the few fines brought against Facebook for its role in the Cambridge Analytica data scandal was the £500,000 penalty imposed by the UK data privacy regulator the Information Commissioner’s Office. It was a paltry financial slap on the wrist, albeit the maximum possible in a pre-GDPR regime. It’s petty cash for Facebook and you might expect that a firm on a campaign to get us all to believe that it means the ‘mea culpa’ mantra would take its punishment without comment and move on.
Facebook decided to appeal. And it’s still appealing - which led to the Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham calling out Zuckerberg over his Washington Post article and the company’s refusal to accept the fine:
In light of Mark Zuckerberg’s statements over the weekend about the need for increased regulation across four areas, including privacy, I expect Facebook to review their current appeal against the ICO’s £500,000 fine — the maximum available under the old rules — for contravening UK privacy laws.
Denham is absolutely correct. If Facebook really is the reformed sinner it claims to be, then dropping this appeal would be one, tiny, indicator of that.
Over to you, Messrs Zuckerberg and Clegg. [Spoiler - don’t hold your breath].