Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has a message for Washington: We’re happy to change the way we run Facebook. Just tell us how.
That’s the main takeaway from a statement he will provide to Congress on Thursday, in a hearing about social media’s role in spreading misinformation. But it’s also the mantra Zuckerberg and Facebook have been repeating for years, in targeted messaging like Washington Post op-eds and paid ads aimed at the Beltway crowd.
And it’s also, more or less, the Facebook default position when it comes to making all kinds of decisions about running the enormous and enormously profitable company: “Yes, we run a company that generated $84 billion in revenue last year and is currently worth more than $800 billion. But we’d like someone else to take responsibility for …” and here you can fill in the blank, because it can range from anything from whether a Pulitzer Prize-winning photo can run on the site to whether Donald Trump can post on Facebook.
Now Facebook is in a position where everyone in Washington wants to do ... something about Facebook, though exactly what depends on what part of the political spectrum they sit on. Republicans want Facebook to promise to stop censoring Republicans, though there isn’t any evidence that’s actually happening; Democrats want Facebook to promise not to destabilize democracy.
So now Zuckerberg is adding a twist to his standard request for regulation: He is telling Congress it should force Facebook — and everyone else who runs an internet platform — “to demonstrate that they have systems in place for identifying unlawful content and removing it.”
Facebook wouldn’t have to necessarily find all of that stuff and take down every last piece of it — Facebook is really big! But it would have to prove that it has spent a lot of time and money to try to do that.
In return, Zuckerberg says, Facebook and everyone else who complies would get to keep the protections offered by Section 230, a foundational piece of legislation that lets online platforms host content uploaded by users without taking responsibility for that content.
On the one hand, this seems like a fairly straightforward proposition. After all, Facebook and other big platforms like YouTube and Twitter already have systems that allow them to police copyright violations on their property. Why shouldn’t they have systems that do the same for “unlawful content”?
(Here it’s worth noting that in the early days of the platforms, their primary legal concern was avoiding the copyright claims that brought down Napster; the notion that the platforms might host content that could incite genocide or destabilize democracy wouldn’t get much traction until a decade later.)
On the other hand, this isn’t straightforward at all. It’s more or less clear when something violates copyright. But it won’t be at all clear what kind of content is “unlawful” — and waiting on Congress, which can’t find any kind of bipartisan agreement on anything at all, to decide exactly what Facebook should allow on its properties means Facebook will be waiting a very long time to hear what those guidelines are.
Which, you might argue, is fine with Facebook, if you believe that Facebook merely wants to appear as though it wants to work with Congress and hope all of the momentum to regulate tech goes away someday.
A different but equally realpolitik take: Facebook figures there’s going to be some kind of Section 230 reform, and by laying out a path it finds acceptable, it will have better odds of getting that result when it comes to negotiating with lawmakers and their staff. (Of note: Neither Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai nor Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, who are also virtually testifying at Thursday’s hearing, asked Congress to modify Section 230 at all.)
Critics will also point out that creating these kinds of rules and systems isn’t nearly as big a problem for Facebook as it will be for smaller internet platform companies. (Remember that Washington levied a $5 billion fine and a new set of privacy guidelines on Facebook two years ago, and Facebook moved on without missing a beat because $5 billion isn’t a lot of money to Facebook.) But since this isn’t a new criticism, the company has a ready retort: Someone — not Facebook, certainly — should figure out the “definitions of an adequate system,” which “could be proportionate to platform size.”
Let’s be clear: Facebook doesn’t really want the government telling it what to do. It was happy(ish) to cut deals to pay Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp for use of its content in America. In Australia, Facebook threw a fit when it was compelled to do the same thing by regulators there.
But what Facebook does want are legal guardrails and a promise that if it adheres to them, it can go about its very profitable business. Asking Congress to set those up — even if, or especially if, it takes a very long time — is a very small price to pay.