Economy & Business

Facebook Understands User Needs Better Than Congress Does

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, April 11, 2018. (Leah Millis/Reuters)
Market forces are doing a much better job of cleaning up the Internet than heavy-handed government regulations would.

On April 10, Mark Zuckerberg was questioned in a Senate committee hearing by 44 senators on Facebook’s use of user data, election meddling, market power, and broader privacy violations. This was followed by a similar hearing by the House Energy and Commerce Committee the next day. Zuckerberg responded to Congress’s concerns with remarks about how Facebook is proactively dealing with user issues, leaving little need for extensive government action.

These appearances boosted investor confidence in the company and assuaged fears of heavy-handed regulation of social media. Instead, we can expect more-limited regulations, such as the Honest Ads Act, which aims to increase the transparency of online political advertising.

On the issue of election meddling, Zuckerberg made clear that governments around the world have brought the issue to Facebook’s attention, and the company is working to address it. Facebook is boosting disclosure rules for issue ads to limit interference by malicious actors. It has committed more resources to identifying and removing troll accounts from across the globe –– such as the nearly 300 accounts operated by the Russia-based Internet Research Agency –– that were spreading disinformation in Russia and neighboring countries.

Zuckerberg further addressed concerns surrounding fake accounts and fake news. Facebook is shutting down fake accounts more aggressively in an attempt to ensure that all users are real people. The company has added links next to articles, taking users to the publisher’s Wikipedia entry to keep them better informed, and has shifted to prioritizing trusted sources. These actions balance disinformation concerns against the need to allow for fruitful public discourse that Senator Ben Sasse (R., Neb.) defended.

Senator Mike Lee (R., Utah) was one of the few to identify the significant “free-market incentives” that encourage Facebook to act in its users’ interests. A study from the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business noted that not addressing the issue of fake news decreased user engagement on Facebook, something that inevitably hurts the company’s bottom line. So the regulations that are on the table do not add anything to the consumer pressures that already govern Facebook’s decisions.

Broader privacy concerns arose about Facebook’s data sharing in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which the firm acquired profile data on up to 87 million users through Aleksandr Kogan and potentially used it for targeted political advertising during the 2016 U.S. elections. While sharing data with third parties already violates Facebook policy, the company changed its data-sharing rules in 2014 to prevent the easy access to friends lists that had allowed data gathering on such a scale. Though Facebook asked Cambridge Analytica to delete the data it had obtained, Zuckerberg acknowledged that ensuring compliance will require more focus, in view of recent events. The company is now conducting a comprehensive audit of all applications that have access to user data and permanently banning any actor found violating its policies.

The scale of Facebook’s platform, which has over 2 billion users, is unlike anything that has been tried before. Considering the volume of material posted, the company will inevitably make mistakes in moderating content. It will inevitably upset some users with its privacy settings, yet it will adapt to consumer pressure. Some issues that will come up in the future are unforeseeable, yet the incentives before the company will force it to respond. Zuckerberg repeatedly mentioned the company’s AI investments that aim to make it more proactive in responding to concerns in the future.

The regulations suggested by Congress, however, would do more harm than good. When asked about whether the U.S. should adopt the EU’s comprehensive General Data Protection Regulation, Zuckerberg responded that the U.S. has different sensibilities. The GDPR, coming into effect next month, has cost businesses an enormous amount to comply with and would kill many of the small online businesses starting up in the U.S.

Weakening Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields online platforms from liability for user-generated content, was also suggested. This would make Facebook accountable if someone does something illegal on its platform. The result would be to increase Facebook’s tendency to censor users for fear of lawsuits, which would be damaging to free speech online.

Before committing to any regulatory action, Congress would benefit from remembering all the good Facebook has created. In both hearings, very few members of Congress acknowledged Facebook’s benefits, viewing it as a corporation whose ethos is violating privacy in the pursuit of profit. The Facebook platform has, however, been a powerful tool for connecting people all across the world. It has allowed people to reconnect with old friends and relatives, breaking down barriers by location. It is being used by people fleeing conflict situations to find safety. It is used by those in areas affected by natural disasters or terrorist attacks to signal their condition to loved ones. Facebook has by and large been a force for good in the world, and Congress should not take steps to limit its impact.

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