Facebook Is NOT The Internet; Stop Regulating As If It Was
from the facebook-ruins-everything dept
For quite some time now we’ve been trying to remind people that the internet is not just Facebook. Unfortunately, this seems quite difficult for many people — especially policy makers — to understand. We’ve discussed how the various policy regulations (including some that Facebook now supports) will actually do a lot more harm to all of us — and we urge people to examine how various policy proposals will impact tons of smaller sites and their users.
Indeed, I keep hearing from people in the policy world who are just… basically mad at Facebook for screwing up so much stuff, so badly, that it’s going to end up destroying much of the rest of the internet. As we noted a few years ago, Facebook’s bad behavior may cause everyone to lose recess.
Konstantinos Komaitis recently had a really excellent piece in Slate highlighting just how bad a problem this is and noting that regulators need to realize that Facebook is not the internet. It starts out by noting some of the history of social media (thankfully, he starts with SixDegree.com, the first social media website I ever used, which many people don’t remember at all):
In 1997, SixDegrees.com was the first real attempt at social networking, creating a space where users could upload their information and list their friends. The site peaked at approximately 3.5 million users before it shut down in 1999.
Since then, a series of social networking business models have emerged, each time offering more advanced tools for user interaction. LiveJournal, a site for keeping up with school friends, combined blogging and social networking features inspired by the WELL; Friendster was a social network that allowed for increased interaction and control by users; Myspace had open membership and gave users the freedom to customize their pages. In 2005, it?and its 25 million user base?was sold to News Corp. But within three years, Myspace had been surpassed by Facebook, which launched in 2004 for college students and opened to everyone in 2006.
But, of course, unlike those chaotic early years, nothing has surpassed Facebook over the last decade and a half. And Facebook has grown larger and larger, and certainly for some people it feels like the entire internet. And, in some cases — such as places where Facebook’s sketchy Free Basics program exists, then Facebook effectively is the internet. Thankfully, that’s not true of most of the world and most of the internet. But, unfortunately politicians are acting as if it were true and that Facebook has way more power and control than it actually does. That’s a real problem.
First, the internet is not a monolith, so treating it as if it is simply will not work. Second, many of the issues regulators are trying to address are not internet problems; they are societal. Terrorism, child abuse, and mis- and disinformation are not an offspring of the internet; they existed before the internet, and they will continue to exist after it as they are ingrained in human societies. Yet, they are treated as if they are exclusively internet problems. Third, and most importantly, regulators should stop thinking of the internet as Facebook and treating it as such. In the internet regulatory landscape, there is a mixed bag of different issues, and Facebook?s involvement in all of them, direct or indirect, adds to the current complexity. Content moderation, privacy, intermediary liability, competition, encryption?these are all broader issues related to the internet, not just Facebook. Yet, the pattern that has emerged is to treat them as Facebook issues. What this means is that, instead of focusing on trying to address them in ways appropriate for the entire internet ecosystem, they are addressed through the Facebook lens. This has been quite accurately characterized as the ?Facebook Derangement Syndrome.?
For what it’s worth, I used “Facebook Derangement Syndrome” in a different context three years ago, but this one is much better and much more important. People get so focused on societal problems that are seen on Facebook that the “Facebookness” of it expands to swallow everything else — such as that Facebook is not the entire internet, that many of these problems are societal, and that at least some of the problems aren’t actually Facebook problems, but rather Facebook enabling people to see these problems.
Komaitis, though, notes how many regulatory proposals we see for regulating the entire internet seem almost entirely focused on “the problem” of “Facebook” (which again, often is not actually the problems from Facebook).
In the United Kingdom, the Online Safety legislation wants to ban end-to-end encryption because of Facebook?s plan to introduce it as a default setting in its Messenger service. On the other side of the Commonwealth, Australia recently introduced a media bargaining code mainly targeting Facebook. Facebook famously ?left? the country before renegotiating a new agreement. Similarly, in what seems to be a coordinated effort, Canada has vowed to work with Australia in an attempt to impose regulatory restrictions on Facebook.
And this trend is not limited to the Commonwealth.
India?s new intermediary guidelines aim at tightening a regulatory grip on Facebook and its partner company WhatsApp while Brazil?s fake news bill, which got approved by the Senate, is focusing on content moderation on Facebook and traceability on WhatsApp. In France, there have been conversations about the introduction of ?new rules? for Facebook, while Germany?s Network Enforcement Law?NetzDG?was drafted with the primary focus of taming Facebook. Finally, in the United States, the Trump administration issued an unsuccessful executive order that aimed to regulate Facebook for bias.
And, he notes, many of these regulators and politicians (and, frankly, the media) are asking the wrong questions about all of this:
In this context, the question we should be asking is not whether regulation is appropriate, but what are the real implications of regulating in such a manner? There is already an argument that focusing on a few, big players has an impact on the health of innovation and the ability of newcomers to compete. And, then, there is the internet. The internet?s global reach is one of its main strengths. It is a feature, not a bug. Among other things, it allows the maintenance of supply chains all over the world; it allows people to communicate; it lowers costs; and it makes information sharing easier, all the while helping to address societal issues like poverty or climate change.
To this end, the attempt to regulate based on one?or a handful?of companies can jeopardize this very important goal of the internet. It can create fragmentation, in the sense of not allowing data to flow across borders or networks to interconnect, and this can be very real and have a very big impact. It can impose limits on the way information and data gets to be shared and the way networks may interoperate. These are significant trade-offs, and they must be part of any regulation?s process.
The article goes on to suggest better, more thoughtful approaches — ones that recognize these kinds of regulations can have a widespread impact, and consequences way beyond what regulators (claim to) intend. Being more humble and recognizing that throwing massive changes at the entire internet because lots of people on Facebook are terrible and Facebook has failed to manage its own platform well, is not a reasonable solution. It’s a “solution” that could choke off much of what is good and important about the internet.