Changing the rules of the internet: can Zuckerberg turn around Facebook’s fortunes?

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After a difficult year, Facebook is looking for solutions

Facebook is facing heavy scrutiny from people and governments across the world after a range of transgressions: the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the hiring of a PR firm to attack George Soros, the departure of 10 top executives and the livestreaming of the Christchurch terrorist attack among them. These and other issues have forced Zuckerberg and his senior management team to appear before governmental committees and the press to explain exactly how they are going to change. This was all reflected in Facebook’s share price, which peaked in July 2018 but had plummeted by 40% by the end of the year.

The conclusion? Facebook must focus on real, meaningful evolution in order to ensure a prosperous future – and that’s just what they appear to be doing.

More cooperation between governments and tech companies

After months of appearing before government committees and journalists around the world, in March this year Mark Zuckerberg seemed to finally kick off the evolution that his organisation so urgently needs. Having rejected demands for increased regulatory oversight of Facebook for years, in an editorial in the Washington Post Zuckerberg called for more cooperation with governments to deal with the problems posed by internet platforms and emergent internet technologies: “By updating the rules for the internet, we can preserve what’s best about it – the freedom for people to express themselves and for entrepreneurs to build new things – while also protecting society from broader harms”.

Changing the rules of the internet

Zuckerberg argued that there were four areas that would require deeper cooperation between tech companies, governments and regulators: harmful content, election integrity, privacy and data portability. Measures he suggested included the creation of an independent body to review Facebook’s content moderation decisions and the formation of a set of standardised rules for harmful content; regulation for common standards for verifying political actors; a focus on creating laws that address advertising for divisive political issues; and GDPR-type regulations across the world. Nick Clegg, the head of Facebook’s global affairs and communications team, spoke about how “the way that the rules are drawn – or not drawn – will be quite different to how they are drawn in ten years’ time… and I think big tech companies have a choice: either they play ball and they try to play a responsible role in that debate, or they try to duck it all together.”

Practical changes for the Facebook platform

Facebook hasn’t stopped at promoting cooperation between tech firms and governments: the evolution strategy has also extended to a series of changes, announced in April, that ‘put privacy first’ because ‘the future is private’. These changes include encrypting Messenger messages and fully integrating the Messenger platform with WhatsApp; trialling a ‘private like counts’ feature; and ways of sharing content without a permanent record. Furthermore, the company is rolling out ‘FB5’, an aspirational redesign of the platform that puts the spotlight on what Facebook would like to be – thoughtful, meaningful and calm. The Groups functionality will be central, and there will be an increased focus on Marketplace as well.

Other ideas for how to control Facebook

The challenge facing those governments and regulators with whom Zuckerberg wants to work to create a new, brighter internet is massive. Siva Vaidhyanthan notes that “regulators are trying to address Facebook as if it’s like companies they have encountered before. But Facebook presents radically new challenges. It is unlike anything else in human history – with the possible exception of Google.” Governments are trying: the UK, for example, proposed a duty of care standard for platforms to ensure they filter harmful content, and the US government is expected to issue a $5bn fine for the violation of a 2011 order preventing the distribution of user data to companies such as Cambridge Analytica. But Vaidhyanthan compares this approach to dealing individual weather events rather than tackling climate change. Others have suggested more radical approaches: Facebook’s co-founder Chris Hughes called for Facebook to be broken up because “Mark’s influence is staggering, far beyond that of anyone else in the private sector or government. He controls three core communications platforms – Facebook. Instagram and WhatsApp – that billions of people use every day… The government must hold Mark accountable.” Meanwhile, US senator and presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren proposed dramatic antitrust regulations, and a Bloomburg article suggested that, as social media has been proven to be addictive, it should be regulated in the same way as the tobacco, alcohol and gambling industries – and not the communications industry.

Radical solutions for a brighter future

The issues that Facebook faces are dramatically different to, and more important than, those faced by any other company, and they require dramatically different solutions. The varied approaches announced by Facebook in recent months are collaborative, radical and positive, and we at ECI Media Management look forward to seeing them come to fruition.

With increased transparency in the Facebook marketplace, response from consumers is likely to be varied. Users, Governments and Corporations alike should clearly understand how their data is being used by Facebook to target Ads.  Changes to transparency and the required investment into security, will no doubt impact the firm’s profits. As customers and co-operations learn more about the result of their time and investment into the platform, initially it is likely demand for the Ad space will see a minor drop, before companies become educated on how to utilise on this newfound transparency. At ECI Media Management, we recognise the value and immense scale of Facebook, which will be crucial to monitor as it moves into this new era.

Image: Shutterstock

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