Government can’t regulate Facebook – it’s up to all of us

I didn’t see this coming but … I agree with Mark Zuckerberg. The Facebook chief executive has called for more government regulation of the internet. And what he has said is pretty sensible, if a little light on detail. The four areas Zuckerberg wants governments to regulate more are harmful content, election integrity, privacy and data portability. I know what you’re thinking: isn’t Zuck just passing the buck? Hasn’t his company very publicly failed to tackle all of the issues he’s saying it’s up to governments to fix? You’re not wrong. The four areas he’s concerned about do happen to overlap with recent Facebook scandals. But that doesn’t mean his announcement isn’t good news.

Big companies hardly ever call for more regulation. It sometimes feels as if people in Silicon Valley view laws and, indeed, nation states, as some quaint 20th-century tech that will disappear in a few years, like CDs or fax machines. Businesses such as Uber and Facebook pride themselves on being “disruptors”, arguing the existing rules are too outdated to apply to them at all. And until now they haven’t been keen on any new rules to replace the old ones. The change of heart should be welcomed.

But the devil, as ever, is in the detail. One of the big challenges facing governments around the world is not whether to regulate social media companies such as Facebook, but how to. If you’re like me and the internet has given you the attention span of a four-year-old child, you’re already bored. But ultimately no regulation of tech giants will work unless users are involved. And that’s why we have to engage in this debate.

I shouldn’t need to remind you how high the stakes are. On 15 March the Christchurch shootings were livestreamed on Facebook. Terrorists can now use the internet as a recruiting ground and propaganda arm. Young people like Molly Russell (who killed herself in November 2017) are shown content about self-harm on sites like Pinterest and Instagram while they sit in their bedrooms at night. As many as 87 million people’s data may have been shared illegally with Cambridge Analytica.

Removing ourselves from these platforms is no longer a realistic option. Companies like Facebook aren’t just a bit of fun, they are an integral part of life for millions of people. The internet at its best connects and empowers: it is worth fighting for. But the way companies operate has not been under enough scrutiny until recently. Facebook has committed to creating an independent body to review its moderation decisions, nicknamed the Facebook supreme court. If it is to function properly, the court of public opinion will be equally important in holding social media giants to account. If we are concerned about online harassment we can, and should, report incidents to Facebook. But we also need to raise our voices by, for example, signing Level Up’s petition calling on Facebook to rethink how it keeps women safe online.

The bad news is there is no magic wand that will keep the best parts of the internet and get rid of the worst. We can’t leave it to politicians to regulate companies like Facebook. Zuckerberg’s article talks a lot about prohibition of content. It’s encouraging to see sites like Facebook banning white supremacist and white nationalist accounts. But we can’t just police people and ideas we don’t like off the internet. There will always be somewhere else online for them to go. So while it’s right for mainstream sites like Facebook and YouTube to moderate content, removing people’s platforms to say harmful things is only part of the solution.

Think of Facebook as a bit like Ryanair or British Airways. If I get on a plane and the man sat next to me gets drunk and tries to grope me, I can file a police report when we land. But while we’re in the air, my best bet is that the cabin crew and other passengers will deal with the problem. There are things that airlines can do to reduce the likelihood of that man behaving badly on a flight. There are rules that should be in place if he does. But Ryanair is not responsible for drunk and handsy men, just as Facebook and Google aren’t responsible for racism and terrorism.

That’s why we should be wary of anyone claiming it’s as simple as deactivating people’s accounts. That might be part of the solution – much like removing people from flights – but the authorities have to take online behaviour seriously, and punish it with the full force of the law. If the laws as they currently stand can’t cope with the shift to virtual spaces, then they’ll need to be rewritten for the digital age.

There is a reasonable chance the likes of Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Google are too big to regulate. Which is why politicians like US senator Elizabeth Warren have suggested we break them up into smaller pieces. Warren wants us to curb the power of big tech by splitting up Apple’s platform from its app store and forbidding Amazon from owning food retailer Whole Foods Market and shoe store Zappos. Her proposal would stop future mergers of tech firms and might mean Facebook would be forced to sell the competitors it has bought (such as Instagram and WhatsApp). It’s an eye-catching idea, but it’s narrowly focused on making companies like Facebook and Google less profitable, rather than making them do less harm. The culture of disruption within big tech firms regardless of consequences is as much of a problem as their size. And changing that requires us to use our power as consumers alongside action from regulators.

We cannot sit back and wait for government to solve this any more than we can expect Zuckerberg to. Wider society must play its part and apply the pressure needed so that those in power uphold – and change –the law when it comes to big tech and its responsibilities to us all.