Facebook explores issues of online content regulation in new whitepaper

James is editor in chief of TechForge Media, with a passion for how technologies influence business and several Mobile World Congress events under his belt. James has interviewed a variety of leading figures in his career, from former Mafia boss Michael Franzese, to Steve Wozniak, and Jean Michel Jarre. James can be found tweeting at @James_T_Bourne.

Facebook has published a whitepaper which explores the potential need and pitfalls of online content regulation – at the same time CEO Mark Zuckerberg admits his company, and big tech firms in general, need greater scrutiny.

In a paper written by VP content policy Monika Bickert, Facebook notes four primary challenges in regulating internet-based communications: the variance in legal environments and speech norms; the ever-changing development of technology and speech; acknowledging enforcement will ‘always be imperfect’; and that companies are intermediaries, rather than speakers.

The latter point will be of most interest. Many of the world’s largest tech companies insist, and have done amid years of scrutiny, that they are platforms, rather than publishers. Facebook outlines its stance in the paper.

“The ability of individuals to communicate without journalistic intervention has been central to the internet’s growth and positive impact,” the paper notes. “Imposing traditional publishing liability would seriously curtail that impact by limiting the ability of individuals to speak. Legal experts have cautioned that holding internet companies liable for the speech of their users could lead to the end of these services altogether.”

Facebook proposes four questions with regards to online content regulation:

  • How can content regulation strike the right balance between reducing harmful speech and preserving free expression?
  • How can regulations enhance the accountability of internet platforms?
  • Should regulation require internet companies to meet certain performance targets?
  • Should regulation define which harmful content should be prohibited on the internet?

One potential solution the paper explores with regard to regulation improving accountability is with greater transparency in areas such as required public reporting of enforcement efforts. While noting the potential issues forced transparency could mean for company incentives, there was an overall look of positivity.

“Companies taking a long-term view of their business incentives will likely find that public reactions to their transparency efforts – even if painful at times – can lead them to invest in ways that will improve public and government confidence in the longer term,” the report noted.

Several of the points raised were around differing norms around what could be perceived as harmful content. Regulation therefore would require an even more delicate balancing act. Facebook notes that online content moderation differs markedly from other judicial processes, on account of the sheer number of cases, and quick response time in making a decision. To that end, the report argues, flexibility needs to be sought. As internet language has evolved over time, so do expressions of hateful speech.

Social media companies are taking various steps to mitigate some of the damage. Last year, Instagram undertook trials of hiding likes, while Twitter has sought to ban all political advertising, while Facebook, alongside subsidiary Instagram, is using artificial intelligence to combat fake news and bullying.

The whitepaper was released at the same time Zuckerberg published an op-ed in the Financial Times, arguing for greater regulation of ‘big tech’ firms. In a similar theme, speaking at the Munich Security Conference last week, Zuckerberg acknowledged Facebook needed some form of state regulation. As reported by The Guardian, Zuckerberg said the social media firm was a ‘content provider’ which sat somewhere between a newspaper and a telephone company.

“Right now there are two frameworks that I think people have for existing industries,” said Zuckerberg. “There’s newspapers and existing media, and then there’s the telco-type model, which is ‘the data just flows through you’, but you’re not going to hold a telco responsible if someone says something harmful on a phone line.

“I actually think where we should be is somewhere in between.”

You can read the full Facebook whitepaper here (pdf, no opt-in required).

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