Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's chief executive, recently raised a lot of suspicion when he argued for government regulation of his own company and other social media platforms. Some people have been skeptical of his motives, complaining that he is trying to fend off more aggressive regulation or to squelch competition.
But instead of attacking the messenger, we should discuss the message on its merits. Zuckerberg's argument is an important step in the right direction — one that should produce sustained discussion and eventually legislation. (Disclosure: In the past, I have served as an occasional consultant to Facebook, though not on the issues discussed in this column.)
Zuckerberg rightly noted that if we were starting anew, we would not want private companies to decide, on their own, how to answer the fundamental questions that social media providers now face.
Consider the integrity of elections — a problem made most vivid by Russian interference with the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Should advertisers have to verify their identities before buying political advertisements? And what even counts as a political ad? Given the stakes, Zuckerberg thinks it might be good for regulators to address these questions.
Or consider protection of privacy. The European Union has issued a General Data Protection Regulation, which Zuckerberg seems to like. He thinks that the U.S. and other countries should consider this regulation or some alternative.
Then there is the question of what Zuckerberg calls "harmful speech." Any government should proceed cautiously before regulating speech. But under U.S. law, it is permissible to regulate bribery, criminal solicitation, criminal conspiracy, child pornography and certain kinds of threats.
In Zuckerberg's view, "Regulation could set baselines for what's prohibited and require companies to build systems for keeping harmful content to a bare minimum." Zuckerberg argues for quarterly reports on what is being done.
Zuckerberg is also interested in the question of data portability. In his view, users should be allowed to move data from one service to another. He argues that data portability can increase choice and also enable developers to innovate and compete.
On all of these questions, Zuckerberg appears to want global rather than national regulation. Avoiding inconsistent requirements is certainly in Facebook's interest. But nations have different values and traditions, and they can legitimately reach different conclusions.
It is not at all clear that Facebook should be "broken up" (as Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren is proposing). But application of antitrust principles to social media providers deserves serious attention. If policymakers do not embrace Zuckerberg's proposals, then they should improve on them. The issues deserve attention now rather than later.
Cass R. Sunstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist.
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