The Munich Security Conference gains a lot of attention every year. This year, besides some high profile politicians and business leaders, a surprise guest appeared. Mark Zuckerberg. The Facebook CEO set out on a rare European tour (though one quite similar to his 2018 trip after the worldwide outrage of the dealings of Cambridge Analytica) to meet the leaders of the continent both in Munich and in Brussels.
But in Brussels, he received only a small amount of hot and a lot of cold, both from Margrethe Vestager and Vera Jourova. The latter told the CEO to do more to defend democratic values. She also urged Mr. Zuckerberg to initiate change from within, because it is up to the tech giant to define what kind of company it desires to be.
Besides being constantly reminded about the Cambridge Analytica affair, Mr. Zuckerberg was also criticized for the latest scandals involving Facebook. Responsibility was a word often mentioned. Never mind that he has pledged a not so small fortune to regulate his realm, to solve problems ranging from fake news to privacy violations. Facebook still insists that it should allow politicians to lie to its users by publishing campaign ads without fact checking and to use micro-targeted ads. A new offer and a few promises were also put on the table in Brussels: Mr. Zuckerberg claimed to be willing to pay more taxes (a music for all the ears demanding an all-European digital tax to fill the holes in the budget) and proposed new legislation on how to rein in the social media giant.
A little belated peace offer, apparently. The Commission is about to unveil its regulatory plans and one can bet that it will contain elements that hurt Facebook’s business interests. Besides the privacy and political meddling concerns (the latest being the ruling of a German court in January declaring that Facebook has broken data protection laws) and tax issues, Marketplace is already under scrutiny in Europe for violating antitrust regulations.
The Munich Security Conference wasn’t a clear success story for Mr. Zuckerberg, either. Though he might have been able to score some points for catching up on fighting Russian trolling and by backing Western lawmakers’ attempts at drafting technology laws to push back on China’s dominance, he also received some negative criticism. After harshly criticizing Facebook’s support for Mr. Trump a few weeks before in Davos, billionaire George Soros demanded in an open letter Mr. Zuckerberg’s and Sheryl Sandberg’s resignation. The claim is the same: the company leaning towards Conservatives and having an informal mutual assistance operation with Trump.
Just one short note before I proceed with analyzing the difficulties of regulating social media. Of course, the battle around the company has another front: besides the management and monetization of user data, it’s also part of the revamping of international trade and taxation, on many levels. (Remember, France tried to tax international tech firms only to be bullied by the US to suspend the regulation. And both Dublin and Google contest the huge fine imposed on the giant by the EU. And there is an OECD debate on introducing a global digital tax regime.) Using our data, which many of us provide to tech giants without much consideration, generates unbelievable amounts of money and an equal amount of influence. Billions of dollars of taxes are at stake and many want a share of the great pie. Donald Trump might not only be protecting Facebook from regulations because the firm helps him to get reelected (though election campaign for 2020 is definitely heating up on the other side of the Atlantic and a whopping amount of 6 billion dollars are expected to be spent on campaign ads and videos, most of which will go to Facebook), he also might have eyes on those 9 billion or so US dollars the US Internal Revenue Service thinks Facebook should have paid in US taxes. (But has channeled through Ireland instead.) And as the market grows, so will the revenue generated by these companies.
Back to regulations.
Many wondered, how a Silicon Valley company, coming from all-out liberal California can employ conservatives like Mr. Joel Kaplan or how it can uphold policies tilting the playground towards the Republicans (or others using the same tactics). Those interested should read a recently published article in Washington Post, written by Craig Timberg, a very interesting read indeed. Timberg writes: “The company says its decisions are guided not by political calculations but by global policy goals of expanding connections among users and protecting them from government overreach, in line with chief executive Mark Zuckerberg’s commitment to allowing speech on the social media platform to remain as unrestricted as possible.” Another Facebook employee, Rob Leathern drew attention to the fact that the company has repeatedly argued for regulations that would apply across the industry and supported the Honest Ads Acts (passed by the House but stalled out in the Republican-controlled Senate). He also wrote: “Frankly, we believe the sooner Facebook and other companies are subject to democratically accountable rules on this the better”.
Well, though I’d refrain from comparing the company’s leadership to saints, because they are far from that, but one shouldn’t forget that it’s the role of the politicians to create the rules. That gives the law its strength and enforceability. We call it rule of law, if anyone needs reminders. Nullum crimen sine lege. Even if it could be proved and even if it might be ethically questionable (though that in itself is a tough topic) tilting towards one party or other is not a crime (yet). And, as noble it would be, no one (neither in Europe, nor in the US) should truly expect a company living from profits to hurt its own interests, especially if it is not legally bound to do so. To answer Vera Jourova’s question: every company wants to be a company that reaches the most possible customers/users in every legally possible way. End of story.
As long as politicians themselves cannot agree on the rules, which party big tech should lean to? Whatever they do might upset the other side. An example: besides Mr. Soros urging leadership change, Nancy Pelosi and many leading Democrats also vowed to dismantle Facebook for supporting Trump, while Mr. Trump angrily tweeted “Facebook was always anti-Trump” or “It’s getting worse and worse for Conservatives on social media” or even worse the moment the company hinted at its intent to ban micro-targeting. It is easy to see, how big tech, like Facebook tries to balance between the two sides in the US by gradually implementing some policies to combat false, misleading news reports and to use third-party fact checkers. Facebook also took down several troll networks and bots.
But by calling on tech companies to take on more responsibility, our politicians are, at least to a certain extent, putting the blame on those companies while trying to mask their own inability to create a comprehensive regulation. Drawing the fine line between freedom of speech and hate speech or ruling on the truthfulness of information is sometimes a hard task even for judges, and expecting big tech to make decisions on it (e.g. by forcefully removing content) can have unexpected side effects, e.g. the limitation of free speech.
Data protection, of course is an extremely important and very good starting point. There is regulation at place, compliance can be checked, fines can be handed out. Further regulation, even better protection and more transparency in advertising never hurts, let’s hope that this will be the focus of the new regulations.
But the political campaign and election meddling part of the story should first be decided by those responsible for it, our politicians and societies. A true believer of free societies and freedom of speech should have faith in the users that they’ll learn to handle social media and they’ll act according their own beliefs and ethics.