Much of the political class in Washington, D.C. is currently holding its breath for the big event of the week: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s long-awaited Capitol Hill testimony, starting tomorrow morning before a joint session of the Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees and continuing the next day before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. His prepared remarks have already been posted, so we at least know where the conversation with lawmakers is going to start.
The testimony is troubling in some ways. Zuckerberg’s comments suggest that the company is prepared to accept liability for the harmlessness and accuracy all of the hundreds of billions of pieces of content posted on the platform, which is a terrible precedent for any tech leader to create, even if his company is one of the few that can afford to hire an additional 20,000 full-time content reviewers in a single year. He also seems to be going along with the premise that a social media network consisting of two billion users can be hijacked to the point of threatening the legitimacy of a presidential election with a $100,000 ad buy. That’s absurd, and a curious insult to the approximately 99.99999999% of politically involved Facebook users who aren’t Russian trolls. Total political campaign ad spending by the way—across all formats—was approximately $9.8 billion for the 2016 election cycle.
He also seems to be inviting regulation of political ideas and of what constitutes “fake,” which is even more troubling, especially since most of the controversial political content on Facebook consists of opinion, advocacy, and ideological signaling rather than content actually presented as disinterested news coverage. What constitutes a “true” claim or proposition in politics is often in the eye of the beholder, as the complex ecosystem of fact-checking and counter-fact checking organizations and websites around today (and their critics) amply demonstrate.
Facebook itself, of course, is free to pursue whatever news-verification partnerships it sees fit—as, in fact, it has since December 2016—but the Orwellian implication is this week’s proceedings is that members of Congress will be able to bully, bribe, and threaten the company into cementing in place some set of guidelines that a handful of politically powerful individuals want right now, as opposed to leaving the company free to evolve and respond to new developments going forward. Facebook already has the world’s largest global network of users, so giving up the freedom to set their own procedures for some kind of qualified or implied legal immunity in the future could be very tempting.
Any new set of rules that comes with a congressional seal of approval, however, can be expected to lead eventually to more government-enforced definitions of what counts as “fake,” and denials of the ability of individuals to post on social media anonymously. This, in turn, could make it next to impossible for the next generation of companies after Facebook to emerge and grow. Despite being a large and influential company, Facebook is in no way an “essential facility” or “monopoly,” especially not in the sense of being a news outlet. Fewer than 20% of Americans say that they get news “often” from social media at all—and that figure includes not just Facebook but platforms like Twitter, Snapchat, Tumblr, YouTube, and Reddit as well.
In a nation with a vibrant, low-cost Internet infrastructure and strong First Amendment protections, it is meaningless to talk about public discourse being “monopolized” by any single company or tech platform. Government regulation, on the other hand, is the one thing that could guarantee one company or platform an unfair advantage over rivals and newcomers, truly stifling the free exchange of ideas. Zuckerberg is understandably motivated to demonstrate to the powers that be in Washington that his team is taking consumer concerns seriously, but in his eagerness to placate the Beltway bigwigs, he risks threatening the culture of free expression he’s supposedly trying to protect.