By Sophia Rivera-Silverstein
Mark Zuckerberg says the government needs to regulate Facebook — without breaking it up.
The tech titan was interviewed by Harvard Law professor Cass Sunstein at the 2019 Aspen Ideas Festival, where he answered questions about election meddling, data privacy, and “deepfake” videos. (Facebook is a festival underwriter.)
Facebook has been subject to political and public backlash following Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, conducted in large part on the social media site. In his conversation with Sunstein, Zuckerberg called on the federal government to shoulder the burden in election security. He argued that while Facebook has implemented “a number of different strategies” to prevent future election meddling (including developing more sophisticated algorithms to identify harmful content and hiring thousands of people to take down said content), Facebook and other private companies don’t have the tools to make “bad actors” stop interfering, or punish them.
“We can defend as best as we can, but our government is the one that has the tools to apply pressure, not us,” he said. “After 2016, when the government didn’t take any kind of counter-action, the signal was sent to the world that [US elections are] open for business. Countries can try to do this stuff, but fundamentally there isn’t going to be a major recourse from the American government.”
Zuckerberg added that he believes government regulation of social media platforms is the best way to handle the complex moral decisions private companies are trying to make on their own: “If as a society we were rewriting the rules of the internet from scratch today… I really don’t think that as a society we want private companies to be the final word on making these decisions.” He pointed to the Honest Ads Act, which would oversee election advertising, as a good start to policing online election content, adding that current laws on political ads are “very out of date.”
Big IdeaWe want to make sure that everyone has to follow the same rules.Mark Zuckerberg
Facebook has also been criticized for its handling of deepfakes, technologically manipulated videos that appear real. (The social media giant recently came under fire for one such video of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, which was edited to make her appear to be slurring her words.) According to Zuckerberg, Facebook is currently consulting with experts and “thinking through” how to best address this misinformation, and working with independent fact checkers to accurately label what information spread on Facebook is true and what is false. He called Facebook’s response to the Pelosi video a failure of execution, since it took more than a day to flag the video as fake.
Sunstein asked Zuckerberg what he considers the best response to a growing public demand for more data privacy. Again, Zuckerberg pointed to more government regulation as the solution, arguing that the question of how much data belongs to individual users is too big for Facebook to answer on its own. As an example, he offered a question about exporting Facebook friends’ birthdays to a private calendar. “Should Facebook enable doing that so that my calendar app can remind me of my friend’s birthdays? Is your birthday my information or yours? Who gets to decide that?” he asked. “As a society, we need to decide where on the spectrum we want to be between asking companies to fully lock down people’s information, and on the other hand making it portable.”
While he acknowledged that Facebook has made mistakes, Zuckerberg resisted the idea that the way to avoid them would be to break up the company, as was recently suggested by Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes. He said this would only make it harder for social media companies to address the social issues they’re facing today, arguing that companies like Twitter and Reddit faced a lot of the same kinds of interference but are less equipped to handle them due to fewer staff and resources.
“I think we want to make sure that everyone has to follow the same rules,” Zuckerberg said. “Breaking up these companies wouldn’t make any of those problems better.”