Opinion

If Facebook Wants a Regulator, We Should Give It One

Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg recently called for government regulation around four specific policies affecting digital platforms. In two areas (privacy and political advertising), Zuckerberg reiterates Facebook’s agreement with previous legislative proposals, including parts of the General Data Protection Regulation in the European Union and concepts from the Honest Ads Act introduced by Sens. Amy Klobuchar, Mark Warner and the late John McCain. Zuckerberg also moves toward responding to calls for stronger limits on hateful content and for stronger consumer control of data both to protect privacy and to promote competition between digital platforms. Rather than cynically dismiss these suggestions, we should embrace them — by creating an agency genuinely designed to protect consumers in the digital age.

Zuckerberg recognizes that technology users around the world feel powerless to navigate digital platforms that are innovative and beneficial, yet complicated, ambiguous, and ubiquitous at the same time. Facebook is right: Regulation is needed, and not just for Facebook. Every digital platform is structured to deliver services and content in different ways, appeal to different communities, and facilitate certain types of communication, but they all may need regulations to protect consumers and the public interest.

The diversity of platform purposes and structures points to a need for regulation to balance public interest protections with the benefits of modern platforms. For example, shifting a user’s data off Facebook may not be compatible with incorporating it into another platform, like Twitter, due to the data required to make specific digital platform features function. Additionally, different platforms may serve different communities or target different regions, which may lead to different community standards.

Creating a new regulatory agency dedicated to protecting consumers from the consequences of using digital platforms meets this need. Congress cannot deliver the kind of expert regulation digital platforms require through legislation alone.The real challenge to context-based regulation that takes society’s values into account is building an institution of experts who not only respect and understand the conflicting benefits and challenges of platforms, but are empowered to use their expertise to balance them on the public’s behalf. This is why we need a new agency to regulate digital platforms.

Any creation of a new agency must be done carefully and with purpose. This agency must have a clear charge from Congress to analyze the entire diverse landscape of digital platforms, not just the dominant firms. The agency must be well stocked with experts in technology, markets, online communications and influence, community building, and the law, and should be empowered with clear rulemaking authority. The agency must have a pro-competition focus to protect data and broader consumer choice, as well as to acknowledge that conduct and communities can shift to other platforms based on differing community standards and platform structure.

Incorporating a competition-promoting mandate into this new regulatory agency does not take away from the government’s antitrust authority. In fact, giving this new agency the authority to protect consumers not only limits anticompetitive practices, but also ensures that one platform’s misstep or poor behavior doesn’t manifest across the entire digital platform marketplace. Antitrust enforcement cannot move quickly enough to accomplish this goal. In other words, antitrust alone cannot and will not solve the problems created by the rise of digital platforms — we need a new expert agency to serve as the “cop on the beat” to have any chance at solving them at all.

We are failing to deal with the impact of the new era of online digital platforms, as even Facebook now acknowledges. We should use this acknowledgement to start a serious conversation about where we — as a society — go from here to regulate digital platforms and protect consumers, including beyond the four issues proposed by Zuckerberg. This policymaking project will not happen overnight, which is why we must move past the public’s outrage and even our sense of powerlessness to take this task head on. To do otherwise jeopardizes our very democracy.

Chris Lewis is the vice president of Public Knowledge, a consumer advocacy group that supports technology policies that benefit the public interest.

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