Facebook shifting from open platform to public utility
By Anjana Susarla, Michigan State University
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on transparency and use of consumer data on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on April 11. File Photo by Erin Schaff/UPI | License Photo
Aug. 17 (UPI) -- When Facebook recently removed several accounts for trying to influence the 2018 midterm elections, it was the company's latest move acknowledging the key challenge facing the social media giant: It is both an open platform for free expression of diverse viewpoints and a public utility on which huge numbers of people -- and democracy itself -- rely for accurate information.
Facebook continues to struggle with the intersection or convergence of three related developments over the past few years. My own research describes the first, the rise of social media networks designed for constant interaction and engagement with users. That enabled the second, getting rid of gatekeepers for news and information: Now anyone can post or share information, whether it's true or not. And in the third development, these systems have given companies huge amounts of detailed personal information about their users, enabling them to display information -- and paid advertisements -- matched to an individual's likes, political and religious views, hobbies, marital status, drug use and sexual orientation.
The company's founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, is most comfortable describing his creation in terms often used for technology firms, with words like like "connections" and phrases like "bring people closer together." And the company is still structured as a regular corporation, responsible only for maximizing value for shareholders.
That mindset avoids the fact that Facebook wields societal power on an unprecedented scale. The company's decisions about what behaviors, words and accounts it will allow govern billions of private interactions, shape public opinion and affect people's confidence in democratic institutions.
What the public expects from a technology company is substantially different from what people expect in, say, a water company or the landline telephone company. Utility companies need to be accountable to the public, offering transparency about their operations, providing accountability when things go wrong, allowing verification of their claims and obedience to regulations meant to protect the public interest.
Technological advances mean what used to be extra services -- like Internet access and social media -- are now necessary parts of modern life. Internet service providers are facing similar transitions, as the net neutrality policy debate lays ground rules for the future of an open Internet.
Facebook has signaled its understanding of that pressure -- and not only with the algorithm changes and the shutdown of the fake accounts leading up to the midterm elections. In a recent court filing in California, Facebook claimed it was a publisher of information, protected by the First Amendment against possible government regulation.
It's true that overregulation does run the risk of censorship and limiting free expression. But the dangers of too little regulation are already clear, in the toxic hate, fake news and intentionally misleading propaganda proliferating online and poisoning democracy. In my view, taking no action is no longer an option.