Facebook's struggles to curb fake news on the platform point to a general problem of the company's power, say internet privacy advocates.
While journalists and academics propose Facebook make direct attempts at curbing the spread of false headlines, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and Electronic Privacy Information Center president Marc Rotenberg are concerned about the influence of the company, which has nearly two billion users. The issue goes beyond the problem of fake news proliferation into areas like privacy.
"Facebook simply has too much power to determine the information that internet users receive," wrote Rotenberg in an email to Inc. "No one company should have the ability to make elections fair or unfair. We need to return to the decentralized model of information dissemination."
"To have one company that has enough power to reshape the way we think--I don't think I need to describe how dangerous that is," Snowden reportedly told an audience at Fusion's Real Future Fair Tuesday in Oakland, California, appearing by video.
According to TechCrunch, Snowden said he doubted fake news on Facebook had the power to skew the election in Donald Trump's favor, a criticism the platform has faced following the candidate's win, which surprised pollsters and journalists. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg last week called the claim Facebook skewed the election "a pretty crazy idea," adding that "voters make decisions based on their lived experience."
Also on Tuesday, New York Times contributor Zeynep Tufekci described a lack of competition against Facebook in an op-ed advocating for greater curation of news on the platform.
"A more balanced news feed might lead to less 'engagement,' but Facebook, with a market capitalization of more than $300 billion and no competitor in sight, can afford this," wrote Tufekci, an associate professor at the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Facebook is the largest social network in the world. While a minor player in social networking, Google competes with Facebook for advertising dollars and consumers' time, as do other social media companies like Twitter.
Facebook has faced the prospect of legal action in Europe over its seemingly monolithic power. News broke in March that German authorities were launching an antitrust probe of the company, with an aim of determining whether the company had misused its role as a dominant social network to collect users' digital information. Facebook has said in statements that it is confident it complies with German law.
Some question whether laws pertaining to the internet and telecommunications are antiquated in the face of a company with the global scale and range of offerings of Facebook.
During a panel centering on issues of privacy and user data at the Techonomy conference in Half Moon Bay, California, last week, Techonomy founder David Kirkpatrick described Facebook, Amazon, and Google as examples of an entirely new breed of global company that, while offering products and services users love, fill those same users with reservations about how the companies operate.
"This is a fundamental new reality, to have a truly global enterprise that has gigantic amounts of data about citizens from hundreds of countries that is operating in essentially a lawless environment, because there is no global legal regime for these global enterprises," Kirkpatrick said.
Not only are there not laws specifically made to regulate entities like Facebook, a key law passed in the mid-1990s exempts Facebook from liability for third-party content on the platform--which is to say almost all of it. The Communications Decency Act, Section 230, protects Facebook from being held responsible for such mishaps as the spread of hoax news stories--like the one that falsely claimed Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly had been fired from Fox--as well as defamatory comments posted by users.
"I think the CDA is a law that didn't really envision a world in which so much content that's being placed online is actually being hosted on these third-party sites," says Bay Area internet business attorney Leeor Neta. Sites like Facebook and Google, which aggregate this information, now act as central portals to the web in a way that may not previously have been imagined. Facebook also actively decides what content to promote to users through its opaque algorithms, unlike the more passive bulletin boards and portals that predominated in the early days of the Web.
But few would advocate for altering the CDA to hold companies liable for third-party content that may be libelous or otherwise run up against the law. Such a move would be widely viewed as an attack on free speech.
"We think Section 230 is vitally important to free speech online and should not be changed," Electronic Frontier Foundation media relations director Rebecca Jeschke wrote in an email. Chris Tolles, CEO of forum website Topix, says making changes could "dent things in a way that you did not intend," and in a way that was colored by whatever political administration was in place.
Facebook has announced it is making an effort to curb fake news on its own terms. The company said Monday it would update policy to explicitly bar fake news websites from having access to its ad network. Google also said it was working on a policy to prevent misleading websites from using its AdSense ad network.
Facebook's move does not target false news reports shared by users in their own feeds, according to Reuters. Curbing that behavior may be more complicated than clarifying ad policy, especially for a company the size of Facebook.
Inc. has reached out to Facebook for comment and will update if the company responds.