Is the Tide Turning on Regulating Facebook and Google?

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Yves here. I am sure Jerri-Lynn will also cover the latest Facebook horror in today’s Links. but here is an overview (hat tip UserFriendly) from the Los Angeles Times:

Facebook said Thursday that it has purged more than 800 U.S publishers and accounts for flooding users with politically oriented content that violated the company’s spam policies, a move that could reignite accusations of political censorship…..the move to target American politically oriented sites, just weeks before the congressional midterm elections, is sure to be a flashpoint for political groups and their allies, which are already attacking the tech giant for political bias and for arbitrary censorship of political content.

As Lambert said, “Heaven forfend our politics should be sensational.”

More from Caitlin Johnstone:

Facebook has purged more dissident political media pages today, this time under the pretense of protecting its users from “inauthentic activity”. In a statement co-authored by Facebook Head of Cybersecurity Nathaniel Gleicher (who also happens to be the former White House National Security Council Director of Cybersecurity Policy), the massive social media platform explained that it has removed “559 Pages and 251 accounts that have consistently broken our rules against spam and coordinated inauthentic behavior.”

This “inauthentic behavior”, according to Facebook, consists of using “sensational political content – regardless of its political slant – to build an audience and drive traffic to their websites,” which is the same as saying they write about controversial things, and posting those political articles “in dozens of Facebook Groups, often hundreds of times in a short period, to drum up traffic for their websites.”

In other words, the pages were removed for publishing controversial political content and trying to get people to read it. Not for writing “fake news”, but for doing what they could to get legitimate indie media news stories viewed by people who might want to view it….

“And just like that 5 + years of hard work promoting ideas of peace and freedom have been erased,” wrote a Facebook user called John Liberty, who lost multiple pages about police accountability, cannabis legalization and libertarianism.

Two of the most high-profile pages which were shut down have probably been seen at some point by any political dissident who uses Facebook; the Free Thought Project, which had 3.1 million followers, and Anti-Media, which had 2.1 million. I’ve found useful information on both sites before, and despite disagreeing with them ideologically in some areas have found them both vastly more legitimate than anything you’ll find on Google News.

By Leighton Andrews, Professor of Public Service Leadership and Innovation at Cardiff Business School, a former Welsh Government Minister, and a former head of public affairs at the BBC. An extract from “Anti-social media? the effect on Journalism and Society” edited by Mair, Clark, Fowler, Snoddy and Tait (Abramis) which is being launched at the Frontline Club on 26 October. Originally published at openDemocracy

Let me start with two quotes, six months and a continent apart. The first is from the current chief executive of OFCOM, who told the Cambridge RTS Conference last year that while she believed that Facebook and Google were media companies, she didn’t “think regulation is the answer because I think it is really hard to navigate the boundary between regulation and censorship of the internet”. Six months later, in an interview with CNN, Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg said “I’m not sure we shouldn’t be regulated“.

There are good grounds for believing that we have witnessed a regulatory turn, that this has moved well beyond media policy, and that European regulatory proposals may become the ‘gold standard’ for global regulation. And there are signs that, even if Brexit happens, the UK will not be immune from the regulatory tide. The 2017 Conservative Manifesto, now being implemented through the Digital Charter, the Green Paper on Internet Safety and other measures, contained a series of proposals, including establishment of the regulatory framework in law. The manifesto was explicit in its emphasis: “Some people say that it is not for government to regulate when it comes to technology and the internet. We disagree.”

Indeed, by July 2018, even Ofcom had arguably changed its position to support regulation.

Today, the debate over the role of information intermediaries such as Facebook, following the Cambridge Analytica controversy and the revelations of abundant Russian election and referendum interference, revealed by painstaking investigative journalism and detailed academic research, encompasses a range of issues which fundamentally raise the role of state sovereignty and the political sphere of regulation.

Facebook and Google are more than media companies. They are advertising engines, data controllers, information service providers and algorithm developers. And they are moving into a variety of new fields such as artificial intelligence and virtual or augmented reality, leveraging the revenues they are earning from advertising. Their corporate power is unprecedented. They have purchased early-stage ventures which might have turned out to threaten their position, and their dominance risks damaging innovation. In their main fields, they are arguably now natural monopolies.

The role of network effects and economies of scale driven by Big Data consolidates and concentrates their power as first-movers. The entry costs for new suppliers are so high as to be prohibitive. Their ability to imitate and replicate at low cost the new services offered by competitors reduces the effects of competition. It is difficult for consumers to switch or exit when in the case of Facebook, most of their friends may be on the platform, and in the case of Google, its dominance of data makes it difficult for any other search engine to approach the quality of service it provides. Cross-platform sharing of data within a group of companies such as Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, intensifies their dominance.

I suggest creating a new category of ‘Information Utilities’ for specific markets such as search and social media, drawing on proposals for the ‘statutory underpinning’ of a new regulatory framework suggested by a former Ofcom regulator.

Information Utilities would be licensed as such and they would have specific reporting regulations in respect of the regulator, which would be granted strong back-stop intervention powers. Dominant ‘Information Utilities’ – whose dominance might be measured in terms of their significant market power, such as their share of the online or mobile advertising markets – would have the most stringent reporting duties. These proposals would be compatible with the imposition of a ‘duty of care’ on social media companies being proposed by others. In the case of Facebook, its founder has regularly referred to it as ‘a social utility’ and in his 600-word manifesto last year, referred to it as ‘social infrastructure ’on several occasions. Perhaps we should take Zuckerberg at his word and accept that Facebook is a social utility and a form of social infrastructure. Utilities, after all, are regulated.

In the past, Parliament has regulated to control monopoly power. For example, the 1984 Telecommunications Act, introduced when BT was privatised, recognized the danger of such a dominant player being able to exert anti-competitive power and put in place a strong regulatory framework. The situation of Facebook and Google is different, but they are dominant in their spheres and have significant market power. Their potential for exploitation by hostile state actors, as we have seen in both the US Presidential election and in the UK’s EU referendum, means that they should be seen as critical social infrastructure. There would need to be a lead regulator in respect of this new framework for Information Utilities, which should additionally be charged formally with convening regular meetings with other relevant regulators. Today, the regulation of social media is no longer a media issue but a social issue.

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  1. lyman alpha blob

    “And just like that 5 + years of hard work promoting ideas of peace and freedom have been erased,” wrote a Facebook user called John Liberty, who lost multiple pages about police accountability, cannabis legalization and libertarianism.

    Don’t use FB myself so hopefully someone can explain how this could happen. I know that NC depends in part on being linked to on FB, but NC doesn’t exist on FB itself so NC will still be here even if Zuckerburg pulled the plug tomorrow (from my keyboard to the deity of your choice’s eyes please!).

    So how does this happen? Did this person only post their writings directly onto their FB page and not simply create a FB page that links to their own website? Or are they maybe being histrionic?

    I very much sympathize here however I have to agree with Lambert’s mantra – If you’re [insert activity] depends on a platform, then you don’t really have a [insert activity].

    1. katiebird

      I used to follow Vast Left (who I discovered on Lambert’s blog, Corrente) on Face Book. He posted stuff on his web page too. But his Face Book page got all the action. He had tons of followers and lots of comments. It was a lively group.

      Then about 3 years ago his page was deleted by Face Book without explanation or apology. It was a bit like having a whole website lost.

      I am sure he had his original work but the contributions of his readers? Gone.

    2. TheMog

      My guess (not knowing anything about John Liberty) is that his pages hosted original content on Facebook and he didn’t have an outside blog or website where he also hosted the same content.

      My understanding is that FB tends to rank content higher when it’s hosted on its platform rather than linked to from its platform. A very common example that’s being trotted out is that a video that’s hosted on FB gets more visibility than the same video hosted on a different platform (like YouTube) and linked to from an FB post.

      There’s also an SEO problem with hosting the same content in multiple places as Google tends to penalise you for it.

      All that said, I’m still a big fan of self-hosting and then linking to the content from the various “platforms”.

    1. lyman alpha blob

      Exactly! I don’t understand why people don’t do that. It isn’t that hard to make one more click and leave the FB site.

  2. Carolinian

    Their potential for exploitation by hostile state actors, as we have seen in both the US Presidential election and in the UK’s EU referendum, means that they should be seen as critical social infrastructure.

    Given this dubious premise how should we feel about the author’s version of “regulation?” Is it regulation to make the internet and social media more free or less free? In fact one strongly suspects that the fake “Russia hacked the election story” was precisely intended to give a censorship result.

    Caitlin Johnstone by contrast obviously thinks the censorship should be stopped. There are now discussions on the web about the “American” view of protected free speech versus the “European” attitude favoring regulated speech. I say stick to the former.

  3. Lord Koos

    I frequently post links to Naked Capitalism stories on Facebook in an attempt to educate some of my FB friends. For various reasons, I think NC is better off being totally outside of Facebook, or if there were to be a NC page, let there simply be a link as The Rev Kev mentioned above. Anything more than that is probably a waste of time.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Having people share our work on FB is always helpful. I don’t want to invest in creating content or a community at FB because it makes us vulnerable to them. The Caitlin Johnstone story we excerpted has more horror stories in the full version.

  4. allan

    Radley Balko @radleybalko:

    As part of its purge, Facebook has removed the pages of several police accountability/watchdog/critic groups, including Cop Block, the Free Thought Project, and Police the Police. They’ve also apparently severely restricted activity for the Photography Is Not a Crime page.

    FB: a walled garden with Homan Square inside.

  5. Big Tap

    More and more their is obvious coordination between Twitter and Facebook. Particularly recently, more often than not, when Facebook censors content and purges people Twitter may follow up doing the same. This is what happened to Alex Jones regardless of your opinion of him. These companies employ biased entities that censor what they don’t like. Is the Sherman Anti-Trust Act still legal? I realize that the Neoliberal/Neoconservative war party that runs this country loves monopolies so this will only get worse. The nonsense these are private companies when they work on behalf of the government at their direction to limit ideas or thought doesn’t cut it anymore. Maybe it’s time to look for alternatives to Facebook and other social media sites if this censoring continues. How hard would be to replace them?

  6. Synoia

    To quote NC:

    If your business depends on a platform, you do not have a business.

    For those commentators who believe NC should be on FB or Google, that is platforms, One could despair on the level of comprehension displayed, so please qualify your comments, or rethink your belief.

  7. cnchal

    > Is the Tide Turning on Regulating Facebook and Google?

    No. Facebook and Google regulate us. Facebook and Google assume you are too stupid to think for yourself, so they will do your thinking for you.

    For example, the coordinated disappearance of Alex Jones from Facebook, Twitter and PayPal cutting off payment for sales of his political message trinkets shows that it is assumed you are an idiot for not being able to see that Alex Jones is an idiot. So they idiot proofed you for your own good.

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