Politics

Facebook said what about content regulations?

A new white paper proposes "a way forward" on content rules.

Vera Jourova and Mark Zuckerberg

Facebook released a 22-page white paper in tandem with Mark Zuckerberg's meeting with EU regulators.

Photo: AFP via Getty Images

Facebook knows more rules are coming on harmful content, so it's doing what it can to shape them.

In a 22-page white paper released Monday in tandem with Mark Zuckerberg's meeting with EU regulators, Facebook's VP of content policy Monika Bickert wrestles with big questions about speech online and lays out a policy roadmap for regulating content — a roadmap that borrows from the company's existing procedures, including transparency reports and channels for users to report content. Except now, Facebook is encouraging governments to adopt similar policies as regulations, along with a new liability model, as it pushes for global standards for managing harmful content. It's a shift that would make it easier for the company to navigate a world of fractured national requirements.

Get what matters in tech, in your inbox every morning. Sign up for Source Code.

It's "more of a summation of the thinking and conversations about this topic that have been happening for several years than anything else," said Renée DiResta, research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory.

"I don't see much that's new," she added.

As suggested by the paper's timing, it's targeted at the very regulators Zuckerberg is attempting to charm right now.

"It's important to understand that this white paper is talking about regulation outside the U.S.," said St. John's Law professor Kate Klonick.

Several countries, including Germany and Australia, have enacted laws with stiff penalties for companies that fail to remove certain content within certain timeframes, drawing complaints from companies including Facebook.

Here are four key highlights from the white paper — and what they mean:

'Preserving free expression'

"In the United States, for example, the First Amendment protects a citizen's ability to engage in dialogue online without government interference except in the narrowest of circumstances. Citizens in other countries often have different expectations about freedom of expression, and governments have different expectations about platform accountability. Unfortunately, some of the laws passed so far do not always strike the appropriate balance between speech and harm, unintentionally pushing platforms to err too much on the side of removing content." (Page 4)

The paper opens with an extended meditation on free expression and acknowledges that private platforms like itself are "increasingly" the ones making determinations about what speech is allowable online. But the section above flags that Facebook is most concerned about regulation outside the U.S., while throwing shade at some established laws.

Without explicitly addressing them, the paper is "clearly a response" to two laws, Klonick said: the German Network Enforcement Act (or NetzDG) and the United Kingdom's currently in-process Online Harms regulations.

NetzDG is aimed at limiting the spread of hate speech, which is illegal in Germany. It was passed by Germany's Bundestag in 2017 — and Facebook already faced fines for allegedly violating it. The law includes a 24-hour removal requirement for material that breaks German hate speech law and penalties of up 50 million euros for violations.

However, human rights activists also criticized that law for being over-broad and potentially infringing on freedom of expression rights. Civil liberties advocates are also worried about censorship when it comes to proposed U.K. regulation.

'Systems and procedures' vs. 'performance targets'

"By requiring systems such as user-friendly channels for reporting content or external oversight of policies or enforcement decisions, and by requiring procedures such as periodic public reporting of enforcement data, regulation could provide governments and individuals the information they need to accurately judge social media companies' efforts." (Page 9)

When it comes to regulatory models, Facebook argues in favor of an approach that requires various "systems and procedures." If that sounds familiar, it's because they are already built into Facebook's current operations.

The company also makes a case against establishing "performance targets" for companies, such as fines if companies don't keep harmful content below a certain threshold. That approach could create "perverse incentives," the company argues, and lead to procedures that do more to juice the required metrics than actually stop the spread of harmful content.

For example, the company argues that pushing for removal within 24 hours, as the German law does, could make it so companies don't proactively search for and remove offending comments that are outside that timeframe to appear better in reporting.

'Harmful content'

"Among types of content most likely to be outlawed, such as content supporting terrorism and content related to the sexual exploitation of children, there is significant variance in laws and enforcement. In some jurisdictions, for instance, images of child sexual exploitation are lawful if they are computer generated. In others, praise of terror groups is permitted, and lists of proscribed terror groups vary widely by country and region. Laws vary even more in areas such as hate speech, harassment, or misinformation. Many governments are grappling with how to approach the spread of misinformation, but few have outlawed it." (Page 17)

One big issue Facebook has come up against is that laws already on the books aren't very specific about what it means for content harmful or the kind of remedy companies should deliver. For example, Australia passed a law in the aftermath of the Christchurch shooting that called on social media companies to remove "abhorrent violent material," defined as videos of rapes, murders, and terrorist attacks — but the timeline for that removal, "expeditiously," is open to a lot of interpretation.

Ultimately, rather than talk about specific content that should be regulated, Facebook argues that governments should consider a few issues before deciding how to approach such content. Among them, that their rules could "be enforced practically, at scale, with limited context about the speaker and content" and take into account the nature of the content (private vs. public, permanent vs. ephemeral) while providing "flexibility so that platforms can adapt policies to emerging language trends."

What's next?

"Any national regulatory approach to addressing harmful content should respect the global scale of the internet and the value of cross-border communications. It should aim to increase interoperability among regulators and regulations. However, governments should not impose their standards onto other countries' citizens through the courts or any other means." (Page 19)

The paper builds on a point CEO Mark Zuckerburg made in a Washington Post op-ed last year, when he argued "we need a more standardized approach" to combating harmful content like hate and terrorist speech online. And while the policy content may not be a revelation, its release makes clear the direction Facebook hopes larger global conversations about content moderation will go: toward an integrated system that acknowledges the reality that global platforms will inevitably help drive.

Some in the tech industry seem on board. For example, Twitter Director of Public Policy Strategy Nick Pickles thanked Facebook for the report — naturally, via tweet — calling it "an important contribution to the debate on tech regulation."

However, the European lawmakers Facebook was likely trying to woo seem less enthused.

"It's not for us to adapt to those companies, but for them to adapt to us," said Europe's commissioner for internal markets Thierry Breton, according to a POLITICO report.
Protocol | Fintech

A lawsuit tests who controls the stock market

Citadel Securities seeks to block IEX's product that limits high-frequency trading advantages.

Kenneth Griffin is the founder and chief executive officer of Citadel LLC, which argued during Monday's hearing that IEX's D-Limit order type shouldn't have been approved by the SEC.

Photo: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Market maker Citadel Securities, stock exchange IEX and the Securities and Exchange Commission each gave oral arguments Monday in a legal case that could have large implications for financial markets.

Last October, Citadel Securities sued the SEC, seeking to reverse the SEC's previous decision last August to approve IEX's D-Limit order type, arguing that this order type would hurt the overall market. The case was argued before the U.S. Court of Appeals Monday.

Keep Reading Show less
Tomio Geron

Tomio Geron ( @tomiogeron) is a San Francisco-based reporter covering fintech. He was previously a reporter and editor at The Wall Street Journal, covering venture capital and startups. Before that, he worked as a staff writer at Forbes, covering social media and venture capital, and also edited the Midas List of top tech investors. He has also worked at newspapers covering crime, courts, health and other topics. He can be reached at tgeron@protocol.com or tgeron@protonmail.com.

If you've ever tried to pick up a new fitness routine like running, chances are you may have fallen into the "motivation vs. habit" trap once or twice. You go for a run when the sun is shining, only to quickly fall off the wagon when the weather turns sour.

Similarly, for many businesses, 2020 acted as the storm cloud that disrupted their plans for innovation. With leaders busy grappling with the pandemic, innovation frequently got pushed to the backburner. In fact, according to McKinsey, the majority of organizations shifted their focus mainly to maintaining business continuity throughout the pandemic.

Keep Reading Show less
Gaurav Kataria
Group Product Manager, Trello at Atlassian

Everything you need to know about the Allbirds IPO

Allbirds wants to become an iconic global brand for shoes and everything else.

Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The humble venture capitalist puts on her Allbirds one shoe at a time, just like everybody else (or at least everyone else in Palo Alto).

Since its founding in 2015, Allbirds has become an essential component of the tech bro uniform, alongside such staples as the embroidered Patagonia quarter-zip, Lululemon ABC pants, the Zuck-inspired black T-shirt and a Y Combinator-branded Hydro Flask.

Keep Reading Show less
Hirsh Chitkara
Hirsh Chitkara (@ChitkaraHirsh) is a researcher at Protocol, based out of New York City. Before joining Protocol, he worked for Business Insider Intelligence, where he wrote about Big Tech, telecoms, workplace privacy, smart cities, and geopolitics. He also worked on the Strategy & Analytics team at the Cleveland Indians.
Protocol | Policy

It’s Frances Haugen’s world. We’re all just living in it.

With the release of the Facebook Papers, Haugen holds Facebook's future in her hands.

Haugen's decision to open the trove of documents up to outlets beyond the Journal has sparked a feeding frenzy.

Photo: Frances Haugen

Facebook knows a thing or two about optimizing content for outrage. As it turns out, so does Frances Haugen.

Or at least, the heavyweight team of media and political operatives helping manage the rollout of her massive trove of internal documents seems to have learned the lesson well. Because the document dump known as the Facebook Papers, published the same day as Facebook's earnings call with investors and the same week as the conference where it plans to lay out its future as a metaverse company, wasn't just designed for mass awareness.

Keep Reading Show less
Issie Lapowsky

Issie Lapowsky ( @issielapowsky) is Protocol's chief correspondent, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. She also oversees Protocol's fellowship program. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University's Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing.

Here are all the Facebook Papers stories

They paint a picture of Facebook that's very different from what Mark Zuckerberg likes to say.

Image: Getty Images, Protocol

Monday morning's news drop was a doozy. There was story after story about the goings-on inside Facebook, thanks to thousands of leaked documents from Frances Haugen, the whistleblower who wants the information within those files to spread far and wide. Haugen is also set to speak in front of the British Parliament on Monday, continuing the story that is becoming known as The Facebook Papers.

Keep Reading Show less
David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editorial director. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.

Latest Stories