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Rules would hurt all but Facebook

Bloomberg Opinion

Facebook has mastered an array of corporate aptitudes – including its use of euphemism and obfuscation. So when its boss, Mark Zuckerberg, writes an op-ed asking governments to impose some new regulation on his company, a little skepticism is in order. Make that a lot of skepticism.

Zuckerberg’s proposals, published in The Washington Post on Saturday, cover four topics: “harmful content,” elections, privacy and data portability. Each suggestion would create its own particular problems if adopted as government policy, but on one point they have much in common: They’d be good for Facebook’s business.

Start with harmful content, which Zuckerberg defines as “terrorist propaganda, hate speech and more.” Facebook would prefer that someone else decide what constitutes such content and should thus be taken down. But it’s hard to see how this would benefit anyone but Facebook. Inviting the government to arbitrate what qualifies as “harmful” speech is a legal and ethical minefield, while establishing a third-party system to do the same would amount to offloading corporate responsibility. There’s no reason to expect every platform to adhere to the same content policies, but every reason to want them to exercise judgment and accept accountability.

Zuckerberg would also like clearer rules governing political advertising. This is fair enough – but beside the point. Facebook exacerbates poisonous politics by creating filter bubbles of like-minded partisans, spreading hoaxes and inaccuracies, inducing anxiety and paranoia, rewarding clickbait and outrage, and so on. Dodgy ads are the least of it. If they come to dominate the debate over “election integrity,” they’ll forestall consideration of far deeper problems – again to Facebook’s benefit.

On privacy, Zuckerberg has become an exponent of Europe’s behemoth rulebook, known as the General Data Protection Regulation.

That approach is badly flawed in its own right: It undermines innovation, burdens companies, annoys users, and offers few benefits. It also happens to empower big companies like Facebook and Google at the expense of smaller rivals, which have no hope of complying with such onerous requirements. Perhaps you’re sensing a trend.

Finally, Zuckerberg advocates making data “portable” — that is, requiring companies to format personal information in a way that allows users to easily move to a competing service. Again, this sounds reasonable. But data isn’t valuable in itself; Facebook makes it so by investing in sophisticated tools and processes that smaller rivals can’t match. That’s why Facebook’s network effects are so powerful, and why forcing competitors to make their own data exportable to Facebook would in all likelihood benefit Facebook. Cracking down on tech companies has become a bipartisan enthusiasm these days. And one can hardly blame Zuckerberg for advocating new rules that would benefit his company. The problem is that his proposals would harm just about everyone else in the process, and leave users’ legitimate concerns largely unaddressed.

Zuckerberg deserves a hearing, but it’s rarely a good idea to outsource regulation to the enterprise that most needs to be regulated.

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