Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg called for new global regulations governing the internet on Saturday, recommending overarching rules on hateful and violent content, election integrity, privacy and data portability.
In a statement that was also published as an op-ed in the Washington Post, Mr Zuckerberg said the company is seeking regulations that would set baselines for prohibited content and require companies to build systems for keeping harmful content to a minimum.
"We have a responsibility to keep people safe on our services," he said. "That means deciding what counts as terrorist propaganda, hate speech and more. We continually review our policies with experts, but at our scale we’ll always make mistakes and decisions that people disagree with."
Mr Zuckerberg’s comments mark his most visible effort so far to shape the discourse around the way the company collects information, uses and disperses it around the world.
Facebook has been the target of probes by various governments after news broke about a year ago that it allowed the personal data of tens of millions of users to be shared with political consultancy Cambridge Analytica. Earlier this month, it came under fire for taking too long to take down a live video of a shooting in New Zealand and allowing it to be circulated across the internet. Millions of users also had personal information accessed via a recent breach.
Over the past year, lawmakers have focused greater scrutiny on the company and its immense influence, asking its executives - including Mr Zuckerberg - to testify in front of Congress to explain the proliferation of misinformation, hate speech and election manipulation on the platform.
In his post, Mr Zuckerberg proposes that "regulation could set baselines for what’s prohibited and require companies to build systems for keeping harmful content to a bare minimum." The tech industry has long said that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act is vital to its ability to operate open platforms. The provision exempts companies from being liable for user-generated content.
Facebook built a content-scanning system that over the years has added rules based on reactions to changes in user behaviour or public uproar after an incident such as the New Zealand mass shooting. Last week, the company moved to ban content that references white nationalism or white separatism from the platform.
When the website’s users or computer systems report posts as problematic, they’re sent to one of the company’s 15,000 content moderators around the world, who are allowed to take content down only if it violates a rule.
But that process is not always precise. "Lawmakers often tell me we have too much power over speech, and frankly I agree," Mr Zuckerberg wrote in Saturday’s post. "I’ve come to believe that we shouldn’t make so many important decisions about speech on our own."
Mr Zuckerberg said Facebook would welcome common standards for verifying political actors, citing practices deployed by advertisers in many countries of verifying identities before buying political ads. He also suggested updating laws to include "divisive political issues" in addition to candidates and elections.
“Every day we make decisions about what speech is harmful, what constitutes political advertising, and how to prevent sophisticated cyber attacks,” he said. “But if we were starting from scratch, we wouldn’t ask companies to make these judgements alone.”
The billionaire said it’d be good for the internet if more countries adopted rules such as the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation as a common framework.
Facebook has an incentive to play a strong role in the debate around technology companies’ data regulation. The company’s rapid revenue growth and billions of dollars in profits are fuelled by collecting numerous data points around its customers and making that easily available to advertisers.
Progressive groups have been urging the Federal Trade Commission to carve up Facebook and split off its popular services Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger into their own companies. In January, Mr Zuckerberg announced that Facebook is planning to integrate the chat tools of those products, making a breakup harder to accomplish if the services are more tightly intertwined. The move has also increased concerns about transparency into how Facebook’s data collection works.
Privacy regulations "should protect your right to choose how your information is used - while enabling companies to use information for safety purposes and to provide services," he said. "It shouldn’t require data to be stored locally, which would make it more vulnerable to unwarranted access."
Mr Zuckerberg also said there should also be rules guaranteeing portability of data that protects information when it moves between services.
The Facebook chief’s statement was in keeping with his efforts this year to frame the company’s more critical problems as part of broader issues for the internet at large. Mr Zuckerberg’s willingness to embrace regulation could pave the way toward taking the thorniest problems about speech and privacy out of Facebook’s hands -- or at least give the company more time to solve them.