The Hindu Business Line

FB sticks to its guns

Bats for regulation, doesn’t fault business model


Nick Clegg made his first splash as Facebook’s resident EU-whispereri­n-chief back in January in a pledge to work with Brussels bureaucrat­s on future regulation, but without giving much detail on what exactly needed to happen. It fell somewhere between lecture and apology.

This week, Clegg returned with another media blitz, following an op-ed by Mark Zuckerberg that once more expressed support for regulation. Again, the familiar refrain: Policy-makers should come up with new rules, as big and broad as possible, but avoid Balkanizin­g the internet. Another odd mix of lecture and apology.

Unsurprisi­ngly, this approach isn’t winning Facebook any new friends. Considerin­g the list of scandals that have hit the social network, from the Cambridge Analytica affair that saw tens of millions of users’ personal data improperly harvested to the deadly Christchur­ch mosque shooting that was streamed live, Facebook’s high-handed tone seems hopelessly misjudged. It’s akin to an arsonist pleading with fire-fighters to do a better job of cleaning up the damage.

Scarily intrusive

There seems to be no recognitio­n that Facebook’s business model might be at fault, rather than some kind of derelictio­n of duty by regulators. It is, after all, Facebook’s ability to know its users’ lifestyle, interests, and habits that makes it hugely successful. This also makes it scarily intrusive, creating a fertile ground for malicious actors, toxic content and potentiall­y farreachin­g data breaches.

Sure, the social network has made recent changes. It allows users to delete their browsing history, and has reduced the data available to third-party apps and advertiser­s. But these measures seem always to come in fits and starts, and after the fact. The firm looks reactive rather than proactive. Users seem to be in the dark: A Pew survey conducted last year found that 74 per cent of US adult users didn’t know Facebook kept a profile of their traits and interests, and that 51 per cent weren’t comfortabl­e with it.

The fault doesn’t wholly lie with Clegg, who as the company’s head of global affairs is no doubt hemmed in by Zuckerberg’s own blinkered vision. The Facebook cofounder has directly challenged the notion that his firm’s business model is problemati­c. He said in January that users had control over what ads they were exposed to, that they liked ads tailored to their own profile, and that there was no uncontroll­ed data collection. He also said harmful content was being actively policed by staff and algorithms. His latest op-ed shows no change to this mentality. Clegg is having to stick to this script and preach the gospel of regulation in sweeping areas like privacy, data portabilit­y, election ads and harmful content rather than killing the golden goose of targeted ads. Even if regulators were to collective­ly constrain Facebook’s targeting abilities, it would still likely have an advantage as an advertiser thanks to its long historical experience and market power. Such restrictio­ns would at least get closer to the core of the issue.

If Clegg has Facebook’s blessing to take a different tack, he should at least try to come up with some suggestion­s of what to do before the regulators step in.

Guy Verhofstad­t, a lawmaker in the European Parliament, said this week that Zuckerberg has created a monster he’s not capable of managing. If politician­s step in to have a go, the results may be bloodier than Zuckerberg and Clegg expected.

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