Wednesday 21 August 2019

Adrian Weckler: 'Zuckerberg is reading the tea leaves on regulation and wants to be seen as a willing partner, not the problem'


Mark Zuckerberg
Mark Zuckerberg
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

'We're too powerful - please help stop us doing more damage."

This is not quite what Mark Zuckerberg said in his op-ed published in the 'Sunday Independent' and the 'Washington Post' yesterday. But it wasn't far off.

"Lawmakers often tell me we have too much power over speech and, frankly, I agree," he wrote. "I've come to believe that we shouldn't make so many important decisions about speech on our own."

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He doesn't need to remind us of the case studies. From Cambridge Analytica to Russian interference in elections and 'algorithms' that exacerbate tensions between ethnic groups, Facebook has proven to be an accelerator for some of our darker impulses.

Zuckerberg's proposal is for countries to pass stronger, more comprehensive laws against abuse.

He also wants the creation of "third-party bodies" to decide exactly what "harmful content" is and then to apply those standards across the big online platforms.

Will Ireland's upcoming Digital Safety Commissioner meet this standard?

Not quite. That role is designed as a sort of ombudsman for people who can't get satisfaction from their dealings with the big social networks, say in the instance of a post that they find offensive, harassing or that is private.

While it will have the power to fine social networks, this may not be very much. Loosely compared to the Australian eSafety Commissioner (by Minister Richard Bruton, who is introducing the legislation), it is likely to have a very small staff and the power to level a maximum fine merely in the millions of euro. By contrast, Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon has a staff of 130 and can fine social media giants billions of euro.

Some commentators have already drawn cynical conclusions as to Zuckerberg's intent. Partly because of the GDPR and its increased staffing levels around moderation and detection of harmful content - a controversial activity in itself - it now has a well-equipped regulatory team.

Thus, the cynics say, it will be much more able to deal with new legal requirements where smaller teams will not. It's an exercise in pulling up the drawbridge and entrenching its advantage, say the sceptics.

Whatever the truth of that theory, there is no doubt that this is about getting in front of regulation. Zuckerberg is reading the tea leaves and wants to be seen as a willing partner rather than a problem. He will be well aware of high- profile voices such as Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, who is calling for the break-up of companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon because of their size and increasingly undeniable utility. Facebook is now the place you go to look up someone's contact details up, rather than a phone book or Google.

There is also no question that we are at a pivotal time in tech companies starting to take meaningful action against abuse.

A month ago, Google made the unprecedented move of imposing a blanket ban on all comments on any YouTube video made by or featuring a child in it. This was done, it said, because it had no other way of satisfactorily blocking "predatory" behaviour.

What was going on was truly shocking: teenage girls' innocent videos were being infested with comments from predators that gave 'timestamps' for when other predators should pay attention within the video.

Faced with this kind of determined behaviour from offenders, algorithms just aren't entirely reliable. So YouTube went for a nuclear option.

The problem for Ireland - and most other governments and bodies such as the European Commission - is that we struggle ourselves with where the boundaries should be between free speech, privacy and safety. In truth, there is only one major country in the world that truly dictates terms to the online platforms: China. Both Facebook and Google are banned there. Apple is allowed, but only on condition it places its servers in the country.

Even the most ardent critic of Facebook would probably shrink from such an extreme method of control.

But one thing is clear - Facebook is entering a new era as a quasi-public utility. It's reasonable to expect greater regulation with that position.

Irish Independent

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