Face­book is a threat to democ­racy. It must be reg­u­lated as a me­dia firm

The Guardian Weekly - - Opinion -

When Mark Zucker­berg ap­peared be­fore the US Congress this spring he in­sisted he was not run­ning a me­dia com­pany. But it is get­ting eas­ier to say why he does. Face­book, the site Mr Zucker­berg founded al­most 15 years ago, hosts and pro­duces con­tent. It sells ad­ver­tis­ing against con­tent. It em­ploys thou­sands of mod­er­a­tors who help pa­trol the con­tent it “sur­faces”. Two months af­ter he gave his tes­ti­mony, Face­book, with­out irony, an­nounced plans to launch news shows on its video por­tal. Its data­base of pri­vately shared in­for­ma­tion and per­sonal con­nec­tions has been used to desta­bilise democ­racy. Mr Zucker­berg ought to be held ac­count­able for run­ning a me­dia com­pany.

The bil­lion­aire will re­sist this. His no-show at the House of Com­mons last week was part of a de­lib­er­ate de­fen­sive strat­egy to de­lay, deny and de­flect crit­i­cism. This will only make the reg­u­la­tory back­lash big­ger. His­tory shows that po­lit­i­cal power can be bru­tally en­forced over an in­flu­en­tial pri­vate en­ter­prise when it has com­pro­mised moral­ity for the sake for profit. Face­book might be able to brush off al­le­ga­tions it is too ad­dic­tive. But it can­not dis­miss so eas­ily the charge that it is bad for democ­racy. The com­pany is long over­due a reg­u­la­tory reck­on­ing.

Face­book did too lit­tle to stop Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence in the 2016 US elec­tion. The com­pany was fined in the UK for break­ing the law af­ter it emerged it had shared the per­sonal data of al­most 90 mil­lion users with third par­ties with­out per­mis­sion. Last month, af­ter a flurry of de­nials, Face­book ad­mit­ted hir­ing lob­by­ists to dis­par­age crit­ics.

Un­due dom­i­nance of the me­dia al­ways poses a po­ten­tial threat. In Bri­tain, Face­book has be­come third only to the BBC and ITV as a source of news, de­spite spread­ing prej­u­dice and false­hood. The me­dia watch­dog Of­com is right to say so­cial me­dia must be reg­u­lated. Around the world, Face­book has been used to dis­rupt elec­tions, spread vi­ral pro­pa­ganda and pro­mote deadly cam­paigns of hate. When an in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist from the Philip­pines con­fronted Mr Zucker­berg about Face­book be­ing the “fer­tiliser” of demo­cratic col­lapse, not­ing 97% of her coun­try were on it, the bil­lion­aire replied: “Oh well. What are the other 3% do­ing?” Mr Zucker­berg is a men­ace to so­ci­ety be­cause he dis­putes pub­lic ac­count­abil­ity for what his com­pany does.

There is strong pub­lic in­ter­est in hav­ing Face­book reg­u­lated as a me­dia com­pany. Law­mak­ers must con­sider curb­ing how it uses data to tar­get ad­ver­tise­ments and what in­for­ma­tion it makes avail­able to third par­ties. Like any other me­dia com­pany, it ought to face strict ad­ver­tis­ing reg­u­la­tions and tough trans­parency re­quire­ments in elec­tions. Given its dom­i­nance in dig­i­tal ad­ver­tis­ing, Face­book is a can­di­date to be bro­ken up. Like many tech firms, Face­book pro­motes the idea its com­mer­cial in­ter­est is in­ter­twined with the pub­lic in­ter­est. That has led to an abuse of power and a threat to democ­racy

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