Mark Zuckerberg is running the gauntlet in Washington this week. The Facebook CEO will appear before the Senate Judiciary and Commerce committees Tuesday for a ritual pummeling by senators from both sides of the aisle over the social network's various scandals, from the user data allegedly scraped by Cambridge Analytica to Russian agents inflaming partisanship ahead of the 2016 election to fake news stories going viral. He then faces the House Committee on Energy and Commerce for another round of ritual pummeling on Wednesday.
But the American people's geriatric representation shouldn't just flail away blindly at the hoodie-wearing CEO. They need to land some good hits and not let him deflect, as his written testimony suggests he will try to do, with mea culpas and calls for more vigorous oversight by none other than he, Mark Zuckerberg.
For instance, let's say a senator wants to focus on fake news and political manipulation. A lot of coverage treated the Cambridge Analytica scandal as an instance of democracy being "hacked." The original Guardian story that broke the scandal described the firm as "Steve Bannon's psychological warfare tool." Another piece in The Atlantic noted that, "people worry they could be manipulated with information — or even thoughts — that they did not consent to giving anyone."
This suggests Facebook needs to internally police itself with a lot more rigor: Be a lot more discerning about what advertisers it allows on its platform, kill content that's deemed "fake" or "manipulative," scrutinize news content a lot more closely.
The problem is this gets slippery real fast. As President Trump himself amply demonstrates, "fake news" can too easily become "news I don't like." Facebook's past efforts to internally curate shared content do not inspire confidence in its ability to soberly draw that line. At the broadest level, just look at how "fact checking" has now become its own arena of subjective debate: There's no single fact checker. Instead there are many news outfits offering competing operations, and many debates over who does and doesn't do fact checking right.
Far from a big data hypnotist that tricked Western voters into approving Brexit or putting Trump in the White House, Cambridge Analytica was more like a snake oil salesman conning politicians. The firm relieved gullible GOP campaigns of their money, and gave them results no more compelling than what you get from old-fashioned poll-based methods. Furthermore, as Michael Brendan Dougherty observed, Cambridge Analytica did nothing that the Obama campaign did not also do, albeit with considerably more success. That the latter was hailed as savvy and sophisticated, while the former was condemned as a dark conspiracy to undermine American democracy, shows how this narrative can become circular: We'll know democracy isn't being hacked when things like Brexit and Trump's election stop happening.
In short, if this new round of recriminations only results in Facebook more rigorously policing its content, that could easily go bad. Facebook would remain a monopolistic platform; a kind of one-stop shop for news and analysis for much of the population. But now we'd be demanding it make editorial judgments as well. The company would become even more paranoid about making sure its content doesn't cross a fuzzy line drawn by the cultural and political powers-that-be. Whatever editorial decisions Facebook made would be the editorial decisions we all get stuck with.
So what should Congress do? A much more ambitious — but also much cleaner — approach would be to just break Facebook up. Yes, it could be compelled to do a better job verifying advertisers, as Zuckerberg himself recommends. And yes, political advertising laws could also be reformed so that television's strict disclosure rules are applied to online ads as well. But traditionally, the way America has dealt with the inherent subjectivity of editorial decision-making is by having lots of platforms doing it at once.
That would allow consumers to pick and choose between platforms who they think do the best job of curating and policing content. And that competitive pressure would force the platforms themselves to do better. What stands out about Facebook more than anything is its sloppiness. The reason the Obama campaign was able to scrape data as well was that Facebook was just winging it, making up the rules for who could do what with its data as it went along. That's the classic behavior of a monopolist, lazy from a lack of competition.
Having one newspaper with one editorial page and one slate of columnists for the whole country would be a really bad idea. Having one social media and news curation platform for the whole country is also a really bad idea.
The other things Congress should focus on are the privacy rules for the internet. Cambridge Analytica's comedic incompetence doesn't change the fact it shouldn't have been able to get the data it did. Facebook is just the biggest single example of a far more sweeping problem: All internet services that rely on ad revenue must share user data with third parties somehow. This business model inherently clashes with how users expect their data to be shared — or not shared, to be more precise. Yes, it looks like Facebook violated the terms of its own user agreement with its lax oversight of Cambridge Analytica. And it deserves to be buried in lawsuits and fines over it. But this happened because Facebook's business model creates an economic incentive to make those terms as muddy and complex as possible.
Government regulators should lay down rules making the terms for all user agreements as simple and transparent as possible. Facebook has already agreed to apply the stricter privacy standards of the European Union to its entire operation. But that shouldn't have been a voluntary choice.
Facebook deserves its reckoning. But we shouldn't transform the company into a convenient explanation for why politics is careening off in directions we don't like. We need clear and bright lines that avoid editorial and political subjectivity. How much market share a company is permitted to have is one. Strict and universal rules for data sharing with third parties is another. That's where Facebook's critics in Congress should focus.