Our editorial: Government wrong fix for Facebook

The Detroit News

Outrage over revelations of Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica data breach hit the halls of Congress this week as CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified before House and Senate panels on the company’s privacy protections and other issues. Democrats and Republicans both jumped on the regulation bandwagon.

Facebook should offer protections to its customers concerning their privacy and information, just as many other companies do. The social media giant is still struggling to fix several mistakes relating to user data. But that isn’t a call for heavy regulation; it’s a signal customers should be more aware of how information they share online is being used—on Facebook and other sites—and that competitors to Facebook may be ready to absorb its disgruntled users.

There are already Federal Trade Commission regulations that bar Facebook from making false representations about customers’ privacy and that require it to receive permission from users before making changes to those agreements. In fact, the company could be on the hook for huge fines for violating those rules.

The idea that a new government agency is needed to oversee Facebook and similar businesses is an overreaction. One of the main concerns about any new Facebook regulations is how they would impact free speech.

Zuckerberg said he’s committed to “taking a broader view of our responsibilities,” when asked how he ensures conservative views aren’t censored on his site. That’s a good promise, and one he should see through. The company should commit to fairness and ideological agnosticism on its site or else it will see its user base continue to decline.

Facebook, as a private entity, has broad latitude over how it manages the content of its site, and even to come up with its own definition of hate speech..

But its customers have the equal right to walk away from the platform if they are unhappy with the product. And that’s what they are likely to do if Facebook continues trying to influence the political process, or misusing user information. they share.

As for its part in sharing Russian ads related to the 2016 presidential campaign, Facebook has already started ramping up protections against fake news accounts. New regulations to guard against this behavior will ultimately cost small businesses and individuals trying to advertise on Facebook.

The company should also issue a detailed statement of community standards so there’s no confusion about what content is not permitted. It also should engage more with users about how their privacy protections work.

But users are ultimately responsible for the information they share online. If they don’t want to be targeted by ads, they can seek to opt out of certain permissions on Facebook, or limit their time on the site altogether. There is no fundamental right to use Facebook without advertising.

Zuckerberg committed to self-regulation, and that is certainly the best approach. Consumer preferences—and shareholder value—will ultimately determine how the company acts. Its stock declined following news of the Cambridge debacle, and the number of users, mostly under 25 years old, dropped in the U.S. and Canada this year for the first time ever.

Those forces should be more powerful in encouraging the company to do the right thing than anything the government could do.