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Mark Zuckerberg’s Four Ways to Fix the Internet

April 2, 2019

6:53 am

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is making a new push for regulation across Europe and the US, and it's the biggest evolution in his public views on the matter we've seen yet.

Zuckerberg explained it all in a Washington Post op-ed over the weekend. Here's the rundown on what he thinks is needed to stem the tide of bad content, data leaks, and tech monopolization that plagues the internet today.

What Does Mark Zuckerberg Think is Wrong with the Internet?

“I believe we need a more active role for governments and regulators,” Zuckerberg summed it all up in his op-ed's opening lines.

In the op-ed, Zuckerberg split his thoughts on global regulation into four specific categories: How best to curate harmful content, how to ensure election integrity, how to regulate privacy, and how to make data portable across platforms.

All these issues have cropped up as hot-button topics across recent years, with Facebook itself at the center of a never-ending onslaught of bad PR that kicked off with the Cambridge Analytica scandal in early 2018. Since then, we've heard of Facebook's role in inciting genocide in Myanmar, its monopoly-like grip on the internet, more data leaks, and a growing exodus led by the younger generation.

Needless to say, with such bad press, Facebook is under immense pressure globally to clean up its act, and multiple governments are threatening the company with intervention if it doesn't comply. This op-ed is undoubtedly driven by that cultural milieu, and it's tough to say for sure that it represents more than just the empty placation that we've seen from Facebook in the past. That said, it's certainly a bigger step in the right direction than we've seen before.

Here are the four areas that Zuckerberg thinks he might have solutions for.

1. Tackle Harmful Content

Everyone can share their thoughts on social platforms like Facebook, and that means these platforms “have a responsibility to keep people safe,” Zuckerberg explains.

“Lawmakers often tell me we have too much power over speech, and frankly I agree,” he says before covering a few of the company's next moves: “So we’re creating an independent body so people can appeal our decisions. We’re also working with governments, including French officials, on ensuring the effectiveness of content review systems.

[…] Regulation could set baselines for what’s prohibited and require companies to build systems for keeping harmful content to a bare minimum.”

These thoughts come on the heels of the Christchurch massacre, which a domestic terrorist in New Zealand live-streamed to Facebook and which Facebook was unable to stop being re-uploaded at least 300,000 times.

2. Protect Elections

Social media legislation can protect democratic processes around the globe. Facebook has proven the inverse already, getting into hot water over running ads from “inauthentic” account “likely run out of Russia” during the 2016 U.S. elections.

A few potential updates to government regulations surrounding political ads include expanding the definition to incorporate entire issues rather than just specific candidates, and expanding coverage beyond just election seasons.

How could regulation help? It'll create “common standards for verifying political actors,” according to Zuck. Is that a genuine benefit, or just a way to take the pressure off Facebook, for determining what is or isn't political? Tough to say.

3. Protect Data Privacy

“New privacy regulation in the United States and around the world should build on the protections GDPR provides. It should protect your right to choose how your information is used — while enabling companies to use information for safety purposes and to provide services,” Zuckerberg writes. “It shouldn’t require data to be stored locally, which would make it more vulnerable to unwarranted access. And it should establish a way to hold companies such as Facebook accountable by imposing sanctions when we make mistakes.”

Of course, this advice is a complete 180 from Facebook's track record on data privacy: It let third-party apps download data on over 50 million users in 2014. Facebook has in no way been a leader in the data privacy push. But with public opinion against him, Zuckerberg might finally be coming around.

4. Ensure Data Portability

Social media tends to be more of a closed system than the open web, as jockeying tech companies add friction designed to keep other social platforms from growing off of the more popular platform's engagement.

Data portability, specifically, means that “if you share data with one service, you should be able to move it to another.” It requires rules and common standards, which is why Zuckerberg is now calling for a standard data transfer format, and mentioning the open source Data Transfer Project as a leading voice in the area.

A true shift towards data portability gives more power back to the users, and could help usher in a “web 3.0.” It might also help deflate the anti-trust arguments swirling around Facebook.

Has Zuckerberg Fixed the Internet?

Zuckerberg is definitely on a “turning over new leaves” bender, with the news out today that he's also considering adding a dedicated news section to Facebook that would pay publishers who opt in. It's a salve in the beleaguered journalism industry that Zuckerberg wanted nothing to do with less than a year ago, but it's not a pivot that journalists are responding well to. Mathew Ingram of the Columbia Journalism Review tweeted his alternate headline for the news, “Spider king says Web Inc. may pay flies to put themselves in a dedicated fly section.”

In reality, we have a lot more evidence of Zuckerberg's company breaking the internet than fixing it. But, keeping the internet from crumbling is ultimately good for Facebook's public profile and market dominance. Zuckerberg's motivations might not be the purest, but the ideas he lays out in his op-ed are sound and the world finally appears to be alarmed enough to take the actions he suggests.

As much as the tech industry and the startup community in particular tend to mistrust government regulation, there's a time when it's needed, and if Facebook's CEO is taking time out of his day to publicly recommend it, we're all for it.

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Adam is a writer at Tech.co and has worked as a tech writer, blogger and copy editor for the last decade. He's also a Forbes Contributor on the publishing industry (and Digital Book World 2018 award finalist) and has appeared in publications including Popular Mechanics and IDG Connect. When not glued to TechMeme, he loves obsessing over 1970s sci-fi art.