Facebook CEO Zuckerberg looks to calm ‘tech lash’ with call for government rules on political ads and data

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For years, Facebook Inc. lobbied governments against imposing tough regulations, warning in some cases that they could harm the company’s business model. Now, it’s pleading for new rules for the good of its business.

“If we don’t create standards that people feel are legitimate, they won’t trust institutions or technology,” Facebook’s Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg said in an op-ed in the Financial Times on Monday. It coincided with a visit to Brussels, home of the European Union’s institutions that have crafted some of the toughest rules in recent years.

Silicon Valley firms have suffered from what’s been dubbed as a “tech lash,” with users frustrated over how web platforms profit from their data. Facebook has borne the brunt of that disenchantment following a series of missteps including privacy breaches and accusations it didn’t do enough to stop election manipulation on its platform. Meanwhile, Facebook’s user growth is stagnating in the U.S. and Canada – its most important markets.

“I believe good regulation may hurt Facebook’s business in the near term but it will be better for everyone, including us, over the long term,” Zuckerberg said in the op-ed, echoing comments he made over the weekend at the Munich Security Conference.

In Brussels, Zuckerberg is due to meet with European Union tech czar Margrethe Vestager and other senior EU officials as the bloc prepares new legislation in areas including artificial intelligence, gate-keeping tech platforms and liability for users’ posts, all of which could impact Facebook’s business.

Zuckerberg has previously called for global regulation covering election integrity, harmful content, privacy and data portability. He said Facebook will publish a white paper on Monday raising questions it hopes new regulation will address.

Political Ads

In the op-ed, Zuckerberg said Facebook was hoping for clarity around what constitutes a political ad — especially if paid for a group not directly affiliated with a political party, such as a non-governmental organization. Companies also need clearer lines around data ownership to enable users to move their information between services, he said.

In addition, the Facebook chief said the company would look into opening up its content moderation systems for external audit to help governments design regulation in areas like hate speech.

Zuckerberg reiterated that private companies like Facebook shouldn’t be in charge of making decisions that balance social values, and hopes that regulation will draw cleaner lines to help companies navigate those decisions, even as regulators in Europe are also investigating Facebook over its compliance with existing privacy and antitrust rules.

“People need to feel that global technology platforms answer to someone,” Zuckerberg said, but also stressed that the plea “isn’t about passing off responsibility.” He said that Facebook is continuing to make progress on some of the issues on its own.

Brussels Visits

Zuckerberg’s Brussels visit follows a recent trip by Alphabet Inc. Chief Executive Officer Sundar Pichai in January who came to discuss regulating artificial intelligence ahead of the EU’s plans to be unveiled this week, when it’s also likely to spell out proposed liability rules for tech platforms later this year.

It’s not a coincidence that the chief executives of tech firms like Facebook and Google are making the pitch for regulation in the EU capital. They have seen before that, when the EU sets sweeping laws on tech, like the General Data Protection Regulation, the impact can reverberate far beyond its borders.

When it comes to liability for what users post on its platform, Zuckerberg said over the weekend that a third regulatory system should be created — somewhere between newspaper publishers, who can be sued for what journalists write in their pages, and telecommunications companies, who aren’t liable for customer conversations.

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