My new book, Facebook, the Media and Democracy, was published on 12 September.
I was interviewed a couple of weeks back by the Belgian newspaper De Standaard as to how Facebook might be regulated. You can find the article here. I tried out a couple of ideas I am thinking about for the book for Routledge that I am currently working on.
Alternatively, if you don’t speak Dutch (nor do I!), the translation is below:
After the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the last few days there have been calls to regulate Facebook. But how do you do that?
Europe already has a lot of rules and regulations that restrict Facebook. And of course Facebook will also be subject to the GDPR, the new privacy legislation that will come into force at the end of May. Europe also wants internet companies to act more quickly against hate messages. And there is the controversial proposal to impose a special tax on the turnover of large internet companies.
“It’s patchwork,” says Leighton Andrews, a professor at Cardiff University and a senior manager at the BBC and minister in the Wales Regional Government. He is one of the academics who have made proposals in recent years for a real legal framework for the internet giants Facebook and Google. ‘This is a new kind of business, so we also have to regulate it in a new way.’
Medium or utility?
Many in the media sector see Facebook and Google as competitors, and would like to see that they are considered media companies. That would impose clearer obligations on them when passing on news reports. But Andrews and others think that you should compare Facebook with a public utility such as electricity, water, or telephone. “Because of the enormous scale and power of Facebook and Google, no one will ever build a new Facebook or a new Google,” says Andrews. ‘De facto they are a utility company. A piece of essential social infrastructure. And most countries regulate their essential infrastructure.’
Andrews calls Facebook a utility company of a new order: an information utility. This must be supervised by a specialized regulator. He compares the situation with the moment that the British telecom giant BT was privatized. In order to avoid BT becoming too powerful, it was stipulated, among other things, that it was not allowed to venture onto the TV market.
In the same way, Facebook could be forbidden to develop certain activities. Or could thresholds be defined – such as: how many percent of the advertising market can the company get?
According to Andrews, Facebook should also report on a regular basis to a special regulator, as the telecom in our country is regulated by the BIPT and the media in Flanders by the VRM.
Two American authors, David Gunton and Justin Hendrix, presented a somewhat less far-reaching model last week, with an emphasis on transparency. “We propose that Facebook should register as a social media platform and report publicly every quarter,” Gunton, a lecturer at the University of Georgia, summarizes via e-mail. ‘Among other things about their privacy practices. The public can then decide informed, and perhaps Facebook will behave better ‘. Gunton and Hendrix propose that the existing market regulator FTC exert control.
In the report that Facebook should submit, a signed statement from CEO Mark Zuckerberg should also state that his company complies with legal obligations. The social networks should also open up their computer systems to external researchers, so that they can check whether all rules are being respected. Gunton and Hendrix believe that the US also need its own privacy legislation ‘based on the European’.
The big internet companies have always maintained that they can keep themselves under control – self-regulation, no laws was the motto. After the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Zuckerberg suddenly said he was not against regulation. He knows from where the wind blows. ‘The question is rather what the right regulation is’, he added in a recent interview. He explicitly referred to the Honest Ads Act, the bill that states that Facebook must disclose who paid for a political advertisement. Now that Zuckerberg has been called on the floor at the American Congress, chances are that there will be far more far-reaching proposals.
But can we allow companies such as Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple to exist in their current form? The American professor Scott Galloway, author of the book The Four, thinks that because of their enormous power, they stifle the functioning of the free market, and that they have to be split up. According to Galloway, Facebook has to be divided into three companies: Instagram, Whatsapp and the social network Facebook. He has for the time being few supporters, but it is not out of the blue: telecom giant AT & T was once divided, and Microsoft barely escaped it in 1999.
The American antitrust think tank The Open Markets Institute goes one step further in an opinion piece in The Guardian: Facebook’s advertising department also has to become a separate company. And on top of that, the US must enforce strict privacy rules. Remarkable: The Open Markets Institute is also pushing the GDPR, the new European privacy legislation, forward as an example for the US.