The demand for more speech and content regulation on the internet by Facebook might seem like turkeys voting for Christmas, but it's a cunning plot designed to protect and advance the power of Facebook's unaccountable monopoly.
Mark Zuckerberg's article, ‘Big Tech needs more regulation,' published in the FT, is an extraordinary public admission that Facebook now accepts censorship as core to its future. Of course, this is not what it appears to say, but the truth will out, as they say.
Facebook CEO Zuckerberg argues that private companies should not arbitrate alone when it comes to fundamental democratic values like elections, harmful content, privacy and data portability. He asks, correctly, ‘Who decides what counts as political advertising in a democracy? If a non-profit runs an ad about immigration during an election, is it political?' He asks: ‘Who should decide - private companies, or governments?'
These are good questions. His answers, however, are not.
The million-dollar or rather billion-dollar question Zuckerberg raises is how a Big Tech giant like Facebook can be held to account, given that it is a private company at liberty to regulate its platform and services as it likes. Its near monopoly, with almost 2.5 billion active users, not only dominates the social-media market in the US and Europe, it gives Facebook incredible power over an ‘online republic' with the freedom to regulate this new public sphere as they see fit.
Zuckerberg is concerned that this power is undermining people's trust in Facebook because it doesn't need to answer to anyone. He wants more regulation to boost user trust. This is what has led him and Facebook to set up a new "Independent Oversight Board" so people can appeal Facebook's content decisions. This kind of regulation he says "may hurt Facebook's business in the near term, but it will be better for everyone, including us, over the long term."
Zuckerberg is not stupid. But he thinks the public are. Closer scrutiny of the Oversight Board reveals how self-serving Facebook's road to Damascus regulatory conversion actually is.
First, the Oversight Board is being funded by Facebook as a separate company. So much for independence. It has selected its first director, Thomas Hughes, who will set up a separate company to recruit the 40-strong board, with Facebook's oversight. Hughes is a long-time advocate for freedom of information and expression, the former director of the equally unaccountable NGO Article 19.
Second, what criteria will be used to recruit 40 wise men and women who are impartial and worldly enough to represent 2.5 billion human beings from across every culture on the planet to decide what speech should be allowed in the world's digital town square? Call me cynical, but unless the members of this virtual supreme court are to be angels summoned from above, everybody sitting on it will have earthly interests, prejudices and agendas of their own.
Third, and most important, will the Oversight Board have power to force Facebook to act upon its arbitration? Facebook users will only be able to seek recourse to the Oversight Board once they have gone through Facebook's direct appeals process. Facebook still retains the ability to decide if Oversight Board decisions are operationally feasible or would cost too much. They can choose instead to take into account arbitration decisions as guidance for future policymaking.
In short, Facebook still controls the wide-reaching changes to policy which means the Oversight Board is a paper tiger. It has no real oversight at all. And nor does the public have any oversight of it. Zuckerberg's 58 percent voting control over the Facebook board means he, not Facebook users, remains king of the castle.
And this is the point. The Oversight Board will provide Facebook with a great advantage: it will shield Zuckerberg and Facebook from scrutiny and state regulation. It could remove total culpability for policy blunders around censorship or political bias from Facebook's executives. And it will most definitely be used as a counter to future regulatory investigations for potential antitrust violations and other malpractice, as the company could hide behind the Oversight Board arguing Facebook is no longer free to pursue profit over what's fair for society.
While this is self-serving for Facebook, the Oversight Board represents a major problem for the rest of us.
Facebook is not really a public square, nor is it a government. They are free to do what so many are clamoring for - from woke identitarians to governments - to set aside hard-won free speech protections in favor of more restrictive ones. Whatever reservations people may have, they are being drowned out by the support Facebook is getting for more censorship and online protections.
The fundamental danger of this new direction for Facebook is that it has escalated the drive for online censorship. Regulating what we can say, see, hear and read will always result in further curbs, not less. The idea that views, particularly strongly held ones, should constantly be put to the test in conflict with others, is now anathema, a bygone age of yesteryear.
The public will no longer determine what's true and good. No, now we have Facebook's 40 unelected moral overlords to determine what can and can't be said or published. The ennoblement of these 40 individuals has transformed the rest of us into infants devoid of moral agency.
This is not an exaggeration. It should be kept in mind, indeed, shouted from the rooftops, that Facebook has more power to restrict free speech than any government, Supreme Court justice, any king or president, in history. They might not be able to jail dissenters. But they can silence them which amounts to the same thing.
No one voted for Zuckerberg nor the new director of the Oversight Board, Thomas Hughes. Nor will we vote for the 40-strong moral guardians of the Silicon Valley universe. If Zuckerberg was really intent on establishing an accountable body to oversee Facebook, why not ask Facebook users to crowdsource the elections of the Oversight Board members? Why not hold the world's first global online elections where candidates have to publicize their free speech credentials, which we can vote on? Moreover, why not rewrite Facebook's rules so that the Oversight Board has the power to remove executive board members, including Mr Zuckerberg, for failure to implement arbitrations?
This might be a pipe dream. But it highlights the gap between Facebook's pretensions and the reality of its self-serving turn to regulation.
Whatever happened to their defense that they were a platform not a publisher and thus not in need of regulation? Their regulatory conversion is not about protecting free speech or users online. They have become the judge and jury of the online world to protect themselves and their profits. It is a cunning plot to ensure their unelected and unaccountable shadow will shroud us for years to come.
It can be stopped, however. Just say no: close down your Facebook account and rob them of your data. Then we'll see how the world's first virtual totalitarian state fares without its oxygen.
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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.
is a writer, speaker and consultant on innovation and technology, was most recently a Director at PriceWaterhouseCoopers, where he set up and led their crowdsourced innovation service. Follow him on Twitter @Norm_Lewis