In an op-ed published on ZEIT ONLINE, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has commented on the ongoing critique of his company, including accusations of the misuse of data and concerns over personalized advertising. German Minister of Justice and Consumer Protection Katarina Barley of the center-left Social Democrats responds to Zuckerberg in an op-ed for ZEIT ONLINE.
I wish Facebook all the best for its 15th birthday! Once you've reached that age, your behavior begins to have serious consequences. Teenagers of this age must be held responsible for their own actions. I welcome the fact that in his ZEIT ONLINE op-ed, Mark Zuckerberg makes it clear that he is cognizant of Facebook's societal responsibility. But on decisive points, he has revealed a lack of awareness of the most pressing problems.
Regulation can be a sensible way
People often have mixed feelings when it comes to social-media platforms, and Facebook, in particular. The site offers new paths of communication and the ability for users to present themselves and their thoughts. But it is also unsettling how well the platform knows its users. It conveys the feeling, for example, of knowing who you want to be friends with before you realize it yourself.
Things become problematic for users when they begin receiving hostile messages or even threats through Facebook, a platform meant to merely simplify contact with friends. One criticism of Facebook is that it doesn't do enough to combat insults and hate. It may be that it isn't in Facebook's interest to report such content, but when the company merely blames hostility on human error or on an algorithm that hasn't yet been fully developed, it isn't particularly convincing, nor does it measure up to the company's responsibility.
It also hardly helps those who are the targets of such abuse. It is the responsibility of each social-media platform to ensure that actionable content is immediately deleted and not further disseminated. To ensure that happens, Germany passed the Network Enforcement Act. The law requires social networks, including Facebook, to act more forcefully on criminal content.
Another important area is the handling of personal data. It is logical that selling user data to advertisers is contrary to company interests, given that one can earn a lot more money selling ads oneself. But what happens when data is leaked anyway? Facebook doesn't just bear a responsibility to refrain from intentionally sharing data. It must also actively protect that data from third-party access.
External regulation is a sensible way of giving back a sense of security to users of platforms like Facebook. Binding rules must be combined with monitoring to ensure the rules are being observed. But what should such controls look like if they are to establish trust without infringing on user freedom?