Facebook: reactive apology and re-inventing the wheel

Watching Facebook wrestle with ageless questions about privacy, free speech and fair play rules for democratic elections is a little bit like watching a group of students produce an occasional essay on political philosophy – without the benefit of any reading or teaching on the subject. The Facebook executives struggling with these questions want to start over without the clutter of received ideas.

Mark Zuckerberg’s latest post, on dealing with the problems of Facebook being used for electoral interference, gives us a lot of sensible changes which the network will make. It also hands down the great man’s definition of freedom. Given that Zuckerberg is a de facto electoral commission for many states on the planet, this a statement of some importance for civil society.

The key sentences are:

Freedom means you don’t have to ask permission first, and that by default you can say what you want. If you break our community standards or the law, then you’re going to face consequences afterwards.

The remedial actions on the network’s role in the democratic process all start from this principle. A few observations:

  • In no state that I can think of is it the case that ‘by default you can say what you want’ and just face any consequences afterwards. To take only one example, no privacy law can operate on that basis. A disclosure of something which the law holds ought to be kept private is irreversible once it’s happened.
  • In the rest of the post, there is a lot about what Facebook intends to do. There is no wider description of the responsibilities that either Facebook has (which might derive from its reach and power) or which it users have (which might be the other side of the freedoms they enjoy). Those ‘community standards’: which community? whose principles?
  • Some of the hardest stuff democracies do is to manage conflicts of rights (which are not reconcilable), sometimes by law, sometimes by negotiation. These collisions are not susceptible to yes/no answers or A/B testing. The best solution is reasoned case by case, not one engineered to be applicable to all. And yes, that can be more expensive than automating it.
  • It is difficult to avoid noticing that the definition of freedom above is convenient to Facebook’s commercial interests. An example of the tension between truth and the need to keep people on the platform as long as possible here.

Recurrent, apologetic admissions of failure are now serving only to draw attention to the fact that Facebook is just not geared to solve issues which have been troubling great thinkers for centuries. Either Facebook gets ahead of the curve or regulators the world over will force it to change. Regulation is a clumsy way of achieving a better network and I’d rather see Facebook step up.

As would Om Malik, himself a man of some experience in this area, replying to Zuckerberg’s post:

This is a great update, but let me ask you and Sheryl Sandberg — for a company that has touted micro-targeting as a core competency and as a way to separate yourself from the other advertising giant, how is that you folks had not foreseen any of this?

I understand our urge to look for good in the people, but the micro targeting was and is always open to abuse. World is full of people who are going to use technologies for nefarious actions. My real question is when are you going to actually be proactive about things such as this nasty micro-targeting? How are we supposed to believe in your words when every so often all one hear is a reactive apology and we will do better. When are we going to see Facebook do better in terms of being preventive?

Update 25/9/17: For the sake of not repeating a theme from earlier posts on Facebook, I did not mention the paramount need for greater transparency. I ought to have: it is eloquently made here.

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