Between a major breakdown that caused its stock prices to fall 5% on Wall Street, a whistleblower’s troubling revelations about its business practices, and difficult hearings before Congress, this last week has been rough for Facebook.
The Menlo Park giant is the lightning rod of growing dissatisfaction among the public and politicians when it comes to the doings of big tech giants. In light of the revelations by Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee who spoke out on “60 Minutes,” we can understand why. It seems that there is a sizable disconnect between the actions taken by Facebook employees to fight disinformation and the disastrous effects of these platforms on its users’ well being and senior management’s business goals.
According to Haugen, Facebook knew that Instagram was harmful to young girls’ body image issues and mental health, but did nothing to rectify the situation. Haugen accused the company of systematically refusing to put internal policies in place that would limit the negative consequences of its apps for fear of hurting its rates of engagement and significant interaction, which are the basis of its formidable advertising campaigns.
Haugen and the very critical senator from Connecticut, Richard Blumenthal, and numerous experts argue that Facebook and other big tech giants are about to encounter the same disappointing fate as the tobacco industry. “Big Tobacco” knew that its products were harmful to people’s health but hid the results of its internal research, its leaders even going so far as to testify before Congress. Will history repeat itself?
In the face of so much anger and indignation, an important element of the debate has gone unspoken. Facebook is not against regulation. The company has even said that it hopes elected officials will put themselves out there by proposing reforms. That is where everything gets complicated.
Calls for regulation are mixed and can essentially be broken into three categories. One is breaking up the GAFAM companies (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft) under antitrust measures. The second is strengthening the right to privacy and the protection of personal information (the oil of e-commerce). The third is getting rid of disinformation and attacks on minorities and democratic institutions.
The debate is not lacking for dead ends. To look into Facebook’s dominant position without eyeing Amazon’s dominance is voluntary blindness. To worry about Instagram’s influence on teenage girls’ body image without questioning a system that makes being thin a criterion for being beautiful is proof of intellectual laziness. It is good to call out disinformation on Facebook, but intellectual coherence would also demand that lawmakers intervene against Fox News, owned by Rupert Murdoch, and the network that is the greatest spreader of the lie that Joe Biden’s election was stolen.
Before that happens, lawmakers will have to resolve a difficult question. Since there is no provision for making disinformation illegal, how will it be possible to have regulations without irreparably compromising freedom of expression? In a reformed world, what applies to Facebook will also apply to the media, artists and to everyone evolving under this fragile umbrella.
That is not to say that leaving the status quo alone would be a good thing. Facebook illustrates the risks associated with deploying algorithms that are outside human surveillance. Haugen has shown that they have brought Facebook into a circle of distortion that the company cannot escape. Without revealing the secret sauce, lawmakers in democratic countries could force the GAFAM companies to show proof of more transparency and liability when using algorithms, with penalties built into the bargain. It would be a useful tool for putting the evil genie back in the bottle.
But above all, it is time to end the exemption from defamation lawsuits that tech companies have enjoyed since the advent of information highways in the name of the totally worn-out concept of net neutrality. The day platforms like Facebook take responsibility for the consequences of hateful or defamatory content found on its apps is the day they will have the best way in the world to purify their ecosystem.
Such reform would require that the states look beyond their borders and see these platforms for what they are — neither tech companies nor media companies in their own right, but companies evolving in an in-between space that requires distinct and systematic regulation.