The European Union has recently been debating various content moderation laws and policies in an aim to curb the spread of online extremist content. Instead of allowing lawmakers to do their jobs, Facebook has spent significant resources lobbying tech industry regulators. As a part of those efforts, Facebook CEO Zuckerberg published an opinion piece this week in the Financial Times and the company issued an accompanying white paper—both of which seek to demonstrate Facebook’s support for increased content moderation regulations for the tech industry.
These documents tout Facebook’s achievements while seeking to stifle action by lawmakers through half-truths and fearmongering. Facebook also continues to fail to acknowledge the tech industry’s historical inability or refusal to remove extremist and terrorist material. For example, Facebook’s white paper suggests that, “specific product design mandates – ‘put this button here’, use this wording’, etc. – will make it harder for internet companies to test what options work best for users.” This argument is nonsensical. Numerous industries are mandated by regulators to place specific warnings or certifications on their products. Facebook also claims that by imposing mandatory windows for removal of content, such as removing hate speech within 24 hours, “companies would have a strong incentive to turn a blind eye to content that is older than 24 hours…” This is a bizarre argument that contradicts Facebook’s earlier boasts that it removes 99% of harmful content and that user safety is their primary concern. Given the tech industries strident claims to have tackled the problem of harmful content, it is hard to see how companies could be strongly incentivized to “turn a blind eye” to any content, no matter how old.
It is almost as if Facebook is implicitly threatening to do less to remove objectionable content if disagreeable mandates like mandatory 24 removal requirements are imposed on the company.
“Facebook continues to push specious arguments to create confusion and fear among lawmakers in an effort to maintain the status quo and limit the tech industry’s liability and responsibility,” said Counter Extremism Project (CEP) Executive Director David Ibsen. “Rather than dictating to public officials on how to keep the public safe, Zuckerberg and his company should instead halt their lobbying efforts and focus on keeping extremist and terrorist content off their platforms. Facebook’s pressure on legislators and regulators is ironic because they are unable to even take responsibility on their prior pledge to eliminate extremism from their site.”
Facebook clearly outlines removal policies for extremist content in its Community Standards, but they inconsistently enforce their terms and shadow themselves under the umbrella of free speech concerns with content regulation. Worse yet, even if the company removes said content, it has demonstrated an inability to stop repeated uploads from happening, as shown by the Christchurch attack video. Ultimately, it’s not a question of whether certain speech should be allowed or not, it’s about whether Facebook will or will not provide services to extremists and consistently enforce their policies.
CEP has seen this pattern of behavior play out before when Germany passed its NetzDG law, which fines online platforms for failures to delete illegal hate speech, and went into effect in 2018. Tech companies criticized the German legislation and also argued that smaller firms would not be able to afford to comply and that content would be over-blocked as a result. However, an investigation on the NetzDG’s impact conducted by CEP and the Centre For European Policy Studies (CEPS) found no evidence of over-blocking, false positives, or burdensome compliance costs related to the law.
Facebook also expends a significant amount of resources on lobbying regulators, but instead of lobbying, they should let regulators do their jobs. If Facebook is sincere about making the Internet safer and more secure, then they must be prepared to not only support specific legislative and regulatory proposals, but to pledge to not spend any more money or time lobbying against government regulation. Rather than simply issuing platitudes, these tech companies must lead by example and allow lawmakers to discuss and negotiate—without industry interference—the most appropriate laws to promulgate in the interest of keeping the public safe.