May 17, 2018

This article was published in Euractiv blog.

Mark Zuckerberg is finally coming to Brussels. We, Europeans, were granted a visit and it feels we had to beg for it. In the US, Mark Zuckerberg did not have a choice; he had to testify in front of both the Senate and Congress, publicly defending his company in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

How did we let this happen? Why do we appear so weak?

For years Brussels has been the champion of self-regulation. The dogma is – at least publicly – based on the assumption that companies know best how to tackle some of the challenges. And we can’t state that this approach is completely wrong. In some cases, social media platforms indeed know best. But what lies behind this idea is our weakness. Our failure to understand the underlying challenges and a failure of regulation.

Cambridge Analytica’s practices were known to many since early 2016. Several articles had revealed how they had been microtargeting voters on Facebook. But as it is too often the case, we had to wait for it to become a front-page headline, resulting in public outrage and begging Mark Zuckerberg to come and speak to us.

But we did let that happen, even though the true use of Facebook’s data was a mystery to very few in the expert and marketing communities. Thousands of advertising agencies used and still use this type of data to target their desired audience.

But what is at stake here? Is it only the role of Facebook in society? Or is it our ability to defend our vision of democracy and freedom?

If it’s the latter, then we have to move away from self-regulation. We can’t continue defending self-regulation and fake outrage when what we already knew becomes public.

During the last years, Facebook could sell its data freely, and too often this data was used in a harmful manner. Harmful for our privacy, harmful for our freedom, harmful for our democracy. Meanwhile, those committed to fighting disinformation – journalists, fact-checkers and researchers – had no access to anonymised datasets that would let them analyse how content spread on the platform. This data is necessary if we want to​ ​understand how disinformation spreads within echo chambers or be able to detect it.

A recent study of disinformation activities during the Italian elections​ ​highlighted the central role ​of Facebook in spreading ​disinformation​ ​through public pages and possibly dark advertising (i.e. ads visible only to a targeted audience). The truth is that no one in the counter-disinformation community knows the extent of the paths and loopholes exploited by disinformation on Facebook. We all know it is there, but we can’t see what or how it is shared, nor expose the networks amplifying it. Without this basic, non-personal information, we don’t even have a starting point to try to crack the problem.

At Facebook, their position a few months ago was clear: Facebook already does a lot to combat misinformation; Facebook deletes large amounts of fake news and accounts spreading it; Facebook is against any regulation that would limit freedom of speech.

While we all agree with the need to defend freedom of speech, is Facebook the best judge of that? Should regulation be left to the private sector entirely?

The answer is no. Some will shift all the blame to Facebook, but we are at least as responsible as they are. EU decision-makers let this happen with self-regulation and soft policy.

“Personally, I think the idea that fake news on Facebook, which is a very small amount of the content, influenced the election in any way – I think is a pretty crazy idea”. That is what Mr Zuckerberg said in November 2016. In January this year, he added that his “personal challenge is to fix these issues in 2018”.

While we don’t question his intentions, shall we just wait and see? Is it going to change for the better? Unlikely. And to fight this “privatisation” of regulation, the President of the European Parliament had no better idea than inviting Mr Zuckerberg to meet… in “private”.

The EU needs a stronger stance. Europeans deserve to hear from Mr Zuckerberg publicly. And above all, the EU needs to begin its own introspection, looking honestly into what it did wrong over the years, and coming back stronger, with fierce ambition. Data should also be used for good, and it can not be up to Facebook to decide what is good or bad. We didn’t elect a Parliament to let this happen.