Facebook the “Digital Gangster”

Facebook the “Digital Gangster”

By: Justine Merriman

At this point CNN, NPR, BBC, CNBC, and virtually every other major news outlet has posted an article about the UK Parliament’s ruling on Facebook’s failed internal regulations. Back up two classes and you’ll remember that we were having this exact discussion about how Facebook should enact an ethical code of conduct on each department. The question posed by Tristan Harris was how and at what levels should a digital company enforce and regulate an ethical code specific to each role. The class discussions seemed to be in favor of such laws and as you’ll read below it seems the US government and UK Parliament are also in agreement that some form of governance needs to be adapted for the digital age and enforced.

The breaking news from the UK is especially interesting as Zuckerberg just testified in front of congress this past year. After over six hundred questions you have to wonder- how many other ways do we need to ask Facebook about their operation to confirm that we just don’t know how to trust them and they don’t know how to regulate themselves. During his line of questioning, Zuckerberg specifically answered questions about Facebook’s current and future regulations standards. These answers included taking ownership of a “breach of trust” when about 87 million users’ data was shared with Cambridge Analytica, ensuring that third parties no longer have access to user data, and agreeing to regulations like the “Honest Ads Act”. That said, the general gist of his time in front of congress was that there is not one single person at Facebook who knows the legalities of all aspects of Facebook and that is why it is so hard to govern and internally regulate.

Know some of you may be asking “What is the Honest Ads Act”? Here’s a VERY BREIF summary:

  • Bi-partisan bill
  • Specifically targets political ads- who is it for/ against, how much did the party/ company pay for the ad, etc
  • Social media/ digital companies would have to keep track of any advertisers who spend more than $500/ year as well as the social demographic options the company has targeted
  • Finally (and most importantly after the last presidential election) these social media and digital companies would have to make an actual effort to stop international interference with elections 

To read it in full: https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/senate-bill/1989

Most recently, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has announced that Facebook may face a fine of at least $22 million (the amount Google had to pay in 2012). However, many privacy organizations are petitioning the FTC to fine Facebook for more than billion dollars all as a result of their failure to protect user data and their lack of defense against foreign sponsored ads.

So enough about the US… what’s going on in Europe and why is Facebook being called the “Digital Gangster”?

Basically after 18- months of investigating Facebook, the UK’s parliament has decided Facebook can’t regulate itself. Before, you think that this was at all similar to congresses’ investigation (where it was clear many didn’t understand social media let alone the platform), let me clarify that the committee looking into these allegations was the Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport select committee. The committee, which added Digital to the name in July 2017, “chooses its own subjects of inquiry and seeks written oral evidence from a wide range of relevant groups and individuals.” “At the end of an inquiry the Committee will produce a report setting out its findings and making recommendations to the Government. The Government must respond to each of the report’s recommendations within two months of publication.” 

Via https://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/digital-culture-media-and-sport-committee/role/

The biggest difference between the UK and US is that the UK is in the process of making a code of ethics a legal requirement for all social media companies in an attempt to stop blatantly harmful or illegal posts. The UK actually started requesting a public code of ethics from each social media company last summer. However, here in lies the gray line because who and how can companies monitor all posts. The answer… they can’t, or at least not by themselves.

The UK’s solution to the lack of co-operation from social media companies is to require each company to abide by a compulsory code of ethics. This code will no longer be written and enforced by each companies’ internal consul, but rather by an independent regulator. This means that rather than handle any issues of harmful or illegal content in house, instead each company can be formally charged and fined by the government. The bigger issue for many of the social media companies is that the regulators would HAVE to be given access to all user data, algorithms, etc that make their intellectual property so valuable.

Facebook will be the poster-child for how these laws will be enforced as the parliament is already claiming that they purposefully broke competition and privacy laws. Hence the name “Digital Gangster”.

All that said, how do you think that social media platforms should write and regulate a code of ethics to keep us, the consumer, safe?


  1. I think all these big tech and social media companies need an outside regulator to handle all their monstrosities that continue to pile up. There has been no filter on any of their content or actions, and now it is catching up with them big time. These fines are just a small blimp to what needs to happen. With external regulators, their only agenda is to protect and keep consumers safe. I won’t be surprised when they crack down and have a full scale plan for implementation this 2019.

  2. I do think that that social media platforms should maintain a code of ethics. These new types of regulations coming out of the US and UK are very reactionary, and I believe that we have to look at the bigger picture. The internet is accessed by the entire world and while regulations on a country by country basis can complicate business and force the hand of many social platforms I think that this should be a topic that is discussed at the UN level.

  3. MiriamPBourke · ·

    Very interesting post Justine, I think we are often so focused on the US that we forget that this is a whole world issue. The Brexit vote was significantly influenced by the targeting done by the Cambridge Analytica group. Unfortunately law and regulation are always 2 steps behind technology, I think that’s one of the risks associated with an open, capitalist economy that supports innovation. Hopefully we can learn from this and prevent it from happening again but my fear is that for as long as the incentives for companies are to maximize shareholder value, then unfortunately the protection of society will continue to come in second.

  4. Thank you for laying this out so clearly, Justine – I try to keep up with this topic, but the swirl of regulatory rumors makes it difficult to keep things straight! I agree with Miriam about the importance of keeping the international context of this issue in mind. The “Digital Gangster” characterization of Facebook seems to be very fitting with broader European attitudes toward digital regulation. In particular, I think it calls to mind the influence that people like Margrethe Vestager, the EU’s competition commissioner and “arguably the world’s most important tech regulator” (according to the Associated Press), have had on regulatory culture outside of the US. While US legislators’ hesitance to regulate Facebook and other digital giants is understandable (and perhaps the better avenue to follow), I wonder if allowing European nations and officials have the first say in what these regulations should look like sets a precedent that the US will be unable to ignore in its own future decision-making.

  5. mckeanlindsay · ·

    Personally, I think that the consumer is significantly more responsible for the personal information they release to Facebook or other social media platforms than the platform itself. Yes, I do think Facebook should have basic responsibility for privatizing the personal information required to register an account such as your date of birth. However, I think the online space has become so interconnected that it is ignorant to believe that one organization has the capability of wholly protecting its users. I think there lies a certain level of responsibility on the consumer to be aware of what information they’re sharing and how that information can be collected by third parties.

  6. jimhanrahan7 · ·

    These platforms now provide an immense level of service for billions of people around the world, let alone one country. Without them, it would likely be difficult for some people to live in modern society. To ask people to “be more informed” or “responsible” is akin to asking them to do lab tests on cigarettes before smoking them if you really want to know and mitigate the risks. That’s inherently unfair. A public entity must regulate them.

  7. taylorfq6 · ·

    Regulations are finally catching up with the ethical dilemmas social media companies are seeing. Although I think this is a great step forward, I think each company needs to continue to regulate their ethics internally as well. External regulations always seem to be reactionary and internal governances likely have a better chance of being proactive and stopping potential problems before they happen. Either way, this was a great post and very informative on the way regulators are approaching these new subjects.

  8. dancreedon4 · ·

    $22M, the equivalent of about $22 for Facebook. This is a good synopsis of what is going on in the UK. Social media should definitely maintain a code of ethics, but I think each social media company should control its own ethics. Outsourcing this to external ‘independent’ regulators will only cause more issues. These independent regulators will be controlled by these companies to the point where it won’t make a difference.
    I’m still not sure how a code of ethics can be written for social media, maybe it has to be as general as possible? There are so many one-offs that would cause issues to a specific code of ethics. Maybe this is something that AI can help us regulate.

  9. matturally · ·

    “how many other ways do we need to ask Facebook about their operation to confirm that we just don’t know how to trust them and they don’t know how to regulate themselves”


    I think ProfKane said it best when he said they’re too big to be governed effectively. I think Zuck is having a rough go at it, but I think it’s out of control at this point.

  10. I think that this post and many of the comments make fantastic points. However, to play devil’s advocate: doesn’t this set a hugely dangerous precedent? What happens when a corrupt government tries to impose regulations on Facebook because they don’t like what people are posting? I know I’m describing a very different situation than the limitations that the UK is imposing, but I can see these types of regulations being abused in the future. I think the UK is protecting its citizens, but I also see a precedent that can enable far less honorable intentions to take advantage of a public tool.

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