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.”
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?