, ,

The mood in Washington has soured against the former tech darling in recent years after the leaks of millions of users’ personal information and the disclosure that its platform had been manipulated by Russian propagandists to spread misinformation and undermine democracy.

Good heavens, sounds like government folks are down on Facebook for the same things government itself has been up to: undermining democracy, spreading misinformation, security hacks, misuse of data, invasion of privacy. Talk about Washington pots calling Silicon Valley kettles black!

Regulate Facebook?

So what’s the remedy? Some people think government regulators need to take Zuckerberg’s company in hand. Even Zuckerberg goes on record for the same goal. Here’s another quotation from the same article:

Nick Clegg, Facebook’s VP global affairs, said in a statement that the company accepts accountability: “But you don’t enforce accountability by calling for the break up of a successful American company. Accountability of tech companies can only be achieved through the painstaking introduction of new rules for the internet. That is exactly what Mark Zuckerberg has called for. Indeed, he is meeting Government leaders this week to further that work.”

I like that capital G on Government. That’s exactly what the internet needs: new, Government-imposed rules to prevent companies like Facebook from mismanaging their responsibilities. Zuckerberg says, “Please, keep me in line! You can’t rely on me any other way!” Everyone knows that if Zuckerberg succeeds in his quest for greater regulation, he can cement his company’s position in the technological cosmos. You can’t unseat a company that has Government backing so easily. Ask the people at General Motors about that.

Go for it, Mark. You’re free to seek permanence and success for your company any way you can. The rest of us should remember, if it’s good for Mark, it’s probably not good for us.

Fundamental choice about the platform

Seems to me all the controversy about Facebook misses a basic question, or choice: either we want an unmoderated platform, or we do not. Also seems Facebook’s customers ought to decide that question, not government regulators. Facebook has to make money to pay its employees. Why should it not be free to do so? Why should it not make money the most efficient way it can?

People will say, “Facebook invades our privacy, it spreads lies, and it has far too much power. All of these things are dangerous.” Last I heard, those are exactly the things we don’t like about our own government, yet Mark Zuckerberg wants his own government to regulate him! We all seem to agree with him. Elizabeth Warren even thinks that if government can break up the company, its ability to cause harm would diminish. Interesting she does not apply the same principle to largest source of harm we have in front of us.

Let’s return to this matter of moderation. Is an unmoderated public square more dangerous than a moderated one? Put another way, does regulation of speech in the public square make us safer? When you put it that way, the answer has to be a resounding no, as no one has ever found a way to regulate speech so as to make all of us better off, let alone safer. If you want government – or anyone with authority to decide what counts as dangerous speech – to make decisions like that, you have just made yourself a slave. That means authorities, under power of law, can decide whether your speech is dangerous.

Now let’s return to Facebook. If Mark Z. and company decide they can make more money if they offer a moderated platform, that’s what they should do. If they believe a move like that would reduce their profits, they should stay with their current model. They already use crude content alogrithms to monitor content, and word goes out occasionally that they use actual people for the purpose as well. If so, they do a god-awful job recruiting talent. They trip over themselves to please people in Congress, but their customers are constantly mad at them.

Apparently not mad enough, however, to leave the platform. The company estimates more than two billion people a day use Facebook or a related service. The Jeffersonian, where you will read this article if I ever post it, has a great day when twenty people visit it. If Mark Z. wants to stop visiting congressional committees, the first thing he needs to do is reduce traffic at his site. He has a huge KICK ME target painted on his backside.

I go around thinking of all the time I wasted at Facebook, minutes I will never have back. I waste time doing other things, but few activities are so worthless as that. I have to modify that. If you go there with a specific purpose, and accomplish that purpose, that’s not bad at all. Let’s say a person you want to contact only hangs out at Facebook. Then of course you want to check in with your friend there. I’m talking about aimless browsing, that immediately makes you feel bad about your lack of discipline.

That takes us some distance from the question of moderation, though. Why would someone in the United States think regulation of speech on Facebook or any other internet platform is a good idea? If you are a famous person, and your livelihood depends on good reviews, I can see why you might try to limit bad press. Our president would like to limit bad press, but he does not seem so good at that. It’s a great example of mutual disrespect: the more he hates, the more he’s hated. You’ll also note he seems to thrive on chaos, perhaps a reason you have not heard him make critical remarks about Facebook.

Dialogue in the committee room

I wish the chair of some committee Mark Z. has not visited before would call him in and say, “Look, why do you think we keep calling you in here?”

MZ: Because I can’t get my act together?

Committee Chair (CC): No, no, no, no. We call you in because we like you, and you’re so cooperative.

MZ: Really?

CC: Of course. People in our business have to grandstand. We need votes the way you need visitors to your site. The more trouble we give you, the more votes we get.

MZ (ruefully): I know.

CC: But that doesn’t mean we don’t like you.

MZ (brightening): You do like me??

CC: Only if you do what we tell you to do.

MZ (hangs his head): That’s what I thought.

CC: We’re not asking for a lot, though. If you keep people happy, we’re happy.

MZ: (hopeful again): That’s the problem. People keep coming to my site thinking it will make them happy, but then they get depressed, or angry, develop this abiding sense of resentment I can’t understand. (Pleadingly.) What can I do?

CC: You can let us take over your company.

MZ: What?

CC: Just kidding. That’s what Senator Warren wants to do. We just want you to try a little harder.

MZ: Tell me what to do, and I’ll do it.

CC: Donate a little more money to our campaigns.

MZ: You called me all the way to Washington to tell me that?

CC: Money and votes go together. You can’t get one without the other.

MZ: If I give you money, will you make my customers happier?

CC: Try to give them a little more respect. They’ll like you better.

MZ: How much do you need?

CC: Coupla mill.

MZ: I give you that now, and three, four months, you’ll ask for more.

CC: That’s how a protection racket works. You pay, we protect.

MZ: But I don’t need protection!

CC: Tell the judge that after we fine your ass.

MZ: Good lord to Jesus in heaven. What do you want to fine me for?

CC: We’ll find something good. Impertinence and laziness for a start. We told you twelve months ago what we want you to do.

MZ: Oh, what was that?

CC: Get your act together.

MZ: I wish I could feel some pity for you.

CC: You’re dismissed. Pick up your orange jumpsuit at the desk on the right.

MZ: You haven’t even indicted me yet.

CC: We just want you to remember where you’re going.

MZ: What about the two mill?

CC: Keep it. You’ll need it for your bond.

Related articles

Facebook co-founder says Zuckerberg ‘not accountable,’ calls for government break up

Chris Hughes, who started Facebook with Mark Zuckerberg, joins a growing chorus of privacy advocates and politicians who have called for antitrust action.