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Not many Likes for Facebook this week

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Mark Zuckerberg poster, Protonet stall, Republica, Berlin, Germany (Image by Cory Doctorow via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

Facebook founder, CEO and major shareholder Mark Zuckerberg is having a busy time explaining the abuse of millions of users' personal data and says he wants to make amends. Media editor Lee Duffield says he may have to do a lot more than that.

DISCLOSURES THAT the company Cambridge Analytica had been amassing and manipulating data obtained from Facebook have brought in a real chance of Facebook coming under public regulation.

In Washington, Zuckerberg has been assisting with inquiries by committees of Congress. There are hearings to come this month, before the Senate Judiciary Committees, and the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, and also the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

In Australia, the Privacy Commissioner has launched a formal investigation after disclosure by Facebook that information on an estimated 311,000 Australian users was provided to Cambridge Analytica. 

In Brussels, the European Commission is working up to the implementation of its GDPRGeneral Data Protection Regulation – from 25th May. An EU regulation is a binding law across 28 countries — serious business, enforceable with heavy fines, which in past episodes have run into billions of dollars.

This new one sets itself up

'... to harmonise data privacy laws across Europe, to protect and empower all EU citizens data privacy and to reshape the way organizations across the region approach data privacy.'

It is of special interest to Facebook, as a corporation on European turf, as it demands built-in, proactive protections — patching up after abuses occur is not countenanced in the regulation. It won’t accommodate free-for-all data harvesting and, indeed, is designed to prevent it.


Mark Zuckerberg has responded to crisis in the way he knows, which is to take the problem onto his own shoulders and, with can-do entrepreneurial zeal, apply technical or operational fixes. He has, after all, been one of a small number of privateer legislators of the internet — for example, making his own rulings on standards of decency and taste in relation to sexual violence. The company gets to set the national standard, performing a function once monopolised by elected governments, who would always be challenged and counter-controlled in democratic debates over issues like censorship.

His online declaration this week, 4 April, showed how the major public issue of information scraping by marketers must, from his perspective, be a matter of corporate issue management. In other words, be contrite and offer some solutions.

He said that, at Facebook, they’d been caught out thinking everybody using the service would be good, and had not anticipated the privacy busting, trolling and abuse, nor the use of citizens’ personal information in manipulative political campaigns — specifically the 2016 election of Donald Trump:

'We did not think enough about how people could use these tools to do harm as well. We did not take a broad enough view of what our responsibilities were and that was a huge mistake. It was my mistake … Across the different products and things we are building I do think we are starting to internalise a lot more that we have this broader responsibility.'

The solutions he has offered are technical or system changes.

For example, in blog posts accompanying Zuckerberg's statement, the company said it:

  • has disabled a feature that enabled distribution of profile data linked to subscribers’ email addresses and telephone numbers;
  • has provided tools allowing users to download their own data archived on Facebook, resulting inevitably in many complaints; and, for this week’s concession, 
  • will run a giant catch-up enterprise, to 'investigate every app that has access to a large amount of information'.


What Mr Zuckerberg may grasp, is that in his present situation, becoming a good corporate citizen is not enough, since, considering service to the overall public interest, Facebook has been a spectacularly bad corporate citizen.

Corporations often welcome regulatory assistance, especially where it provides “stability and predictability” and keeps them out of trouble. He might see that, above the company level, he is not America, or the World and that, as he is riding a tiger with this product he has made, wiser heads, properly and democratically, may have to intervene.

That is why there are several investigations going on in Washington, engaging not just their parliamentarians, but agencies that include the Federal Trade Commission.

Powerful lobbies in the United States will push hard against any regulation of business, whether it is in the public interest or not, running campaigns embroidered with the neoliberal financial and political ideology. Industry in America fought tooth and nail against the original U.S. “trust busting” laws, a century ago — passed to break monopolies and impose fair trade in key industries, such as pharmaceuticals, sugar, railways and steel.

However, it is being recognised there as a serious situation: a firm that grew overnight to become one of the ten highest market-capitalised public companies in the world has created a problem for the whole of society — a problem outside the control of that business enterprise and its owners. 

Already, the formal investigation into fake news, Russia and the Trump election – the inquiry by U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller – has proved very serious and intent. It looks powerful.

Facebook is connected to that inquiry, especially through the now-disclosed activities of Cambridge Analytica.


The United States is a democracy observing the rule of law and, if the pressure is great enough, you can dream that the wild internet and its social media exercises might start to be brought under protective public regulation. Maybe that would be legislation following the European Union model, together with the formation of an independent agency to do the oversight.

Members of the public – billions now – who strongly like Facebook – in the sense of feeling affection and approval – will have had their faith shaken in the last few weeks. Can’t give it up; can’t trust it. The situation might produce some consciousness-raising, and political support for more protection and respect.

Operations like Facebook have contributed to a great explosion of communication and exchange, as an agency of freedom, a new kind of media containing great value. Still, they are emphatic that they are carriers and aggregators not publishers; they are just businesses and so do not have to be accountable like traditional media. In that way, they do not have the same case to be exempted from laws and regulation — it is much harder for them to seriously run a freedom-of-the-media argument in their own interest.

The Facebook episode still unfolding has drawn fresh attention to distinctions between social media, more private and more dispersed, and mass media operations of all shapes and sizes that also operate on line.

Media editor Dr Lee Duffield is a former ABC foreign correspondent, political journalist and academic.

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