Mark Zuckerberg says he wants more regulation for Facebook

ON MARCH 30TH Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s boss, wrote about his company’s future for the second time in a month. His first note, published March 6th, covered a range of planned technical changes to Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram. Then, in an article in the Washington Post, he urged the world’s governments to regulate social networks. Specifically, he wants them to protect the public from harmful content (such as videos of massacres), ensure the integrity of elections, guarantee that users can move their data between services, and underwrite users’ privacy.

Rich, you may think, coming from the boss of a firm accused of falling foul of all four precepts; on April 3rd it emerged that some user data had been stored on unsecured third-party servers. Mr Zuckerberg’s plea looks like an attempt to get ahead of tougher rules which could crimp Facebook’s earnings from selling targeted ads—just as its model faces fresh challenges.

On March 28th America’s Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) accused Facebook of allowing advertisers to target property buyers by race, religion and other factors in what amounts to discrimination. This week a team led by researchers from Northeastern University in Boston presented work suggesting that Facebook’s algorithms may discriminate inadvertently, by optimising engagement. In the algorithmic search for users who will respond most eagerly to a given advert, Facebook may automatically exclude some users from minority groups.

Finely tailored ads are the source of the company’s fat profits; making them less precise could hurt margins. The HUD accusation came a week after Facebook settled a similar suit with the National Fair Housing Alliance and the American Civil Liberties Union. Facebook said it was surprised by HUD’s charges, as it had been working with the department to prevent discrimination.

Instead, the company is talking up its own efforts to tackle Mr Zuckerberg’s four gripes. Last year he suggested creating an independent arbiter at arm’s length from the company to make hard decisions about what content is unacceptable. In the past nine months a dedicated team of Facebook employees has jetted around the world discussing how this might work. On April 1st the firm opened a public consultation on the matter. Principles are likely to include giving the board’s members (who would probably number 40 or so) fixed compensation and shielding them from being sacked by Facebook.

Now it apparently wants to go further. “It would be good for the Internet if more countries adopted regulation such as GDPR as a common framework,” Mr Zuckerberg mused in his op-ed, referring to Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation. He wants America to make internet firms including his own more accountable, “by imposing sanctions when we make mistakes”. Mr Zuckerberg added that he was ready to discuss new regulations with lawmakers around the world.

What counts as a mistake is, of course, open to interpretation. So, apparently, is readiness to talk. Facebook is currently appealing a ruling by Elizabeth Denham, Britain’s top privacy and data-protection regulator, about its handling of user data in the lead-up to the Brexit referendum in 2016. Mr Zuckerberg has repeatedly ignored requests from British MPs to give evidence at committee hearings on Facebook’s role in the referendum. On April 1st Ms Denham called on the company to drop its appeal in light of Mr Zuckerberg’s new openness to regulation and accountability. There are no signs that Facebook plans to drop the appeal. Asked why its boss had not engaged with British lawmakers, the firm declined to comment.

It will take more than an article to make governments trust Mr Zuckerberg and his company. Politicians of all stripes in Europe and America are falling over themselves to sound tough on all internet giants. For the time being, though, investors’ confidence in Facebook remains resolute. Despite HUD’s discrimination claims, the company’s share price is buoyant.

This post was originally posted at https://www.economist.com/business/2019/04/06/mark-zuckerberg-says-he-wants-more-regulation-for-facebook.

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