It’s been well-documented by now that America’s lawmakers, while increasingly fed-up with tech giants’ negligence in combating fake news and foreign interference, have let much of the problem slide, giving those companies who bring in billions of dollars a year a free pass to continue business as usual.
America’s allies, however, seem less star-struck with companies’ massive financial resources: in the past week alone, both Canada and the U.K. have angrily confronted Facebook executives over the issue.
According to a report on Thursday by The Toronto Star, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke with Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg back in November and argued that the company wasn’t doing enough to combat the spread of fake news. Trudeau warned that, unless the company cracked down on the problem, it could face new regulation from Ottawa.
Canada has a federal election coming up in 2019 and the Communications Security Establishment (the country’s equivalent of the NSA) has already warned that it is “very likely” outside groups will attempt to influence the vote through “information warfare.”
The same day the Star report was published, British lawmakers visiting Washington D.C. fiercely criticized executives from Facebook, Twitter and Google over their failure to effectively self-regulate their platforms. The British Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee spent hours at George Washington University grilling the executives, asking, among other questions, “Why has your self-regulation so demonstrably failed and how many chances do you need?” Lawmakers said that big tech’s attempts to tackle misleading and illegal content were “unambitious”.
“Isn’t Facebook a massive surveillance operation?” Conservative MP Rebecca Pow asked.
Labour Party MP Jo Stevens said that connection between Facebook and its users was like an “abusive relationship” where one side was exercising “coercive control.”
The specter of regulation is a looming threat for Facebook, especially in Europe. In late 2017, Ofcom — the U.K’s national media regulator — and then-Culture Secretary Karen Bradley considered changing Facebook, Google and other tech giants’ legal status to “publishers” — giving them more responsibility for the kind of material that appears on their sites. Facebook has long-argued that it is merely a conduit of information and shouldn’t be held responsible for false or misleading content shared on its platform.
Germany, meanwhile, has gone even further. Last year, officials enacted a controversial law stating that social media companies could face up to $60 million in fines they failed to remove “obviously illegal content” within 24 hours.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, meanwhile, has been doing nonstop damage control over the past year, in order to combat the increasingly loud pro-regulation chorus from lawmakers all over the world. In a January post, he wrote that one his main focuses in the new year would be ensuring that time spent on Facebook would be “time well spent” for users, and that family and friends, not public content, would form the core of the user experience. Referring to statistics showing that users spent 50 million fewer hours per day on Facebook during the last quarter of 2017, Zuckerberg added that he wanted the company to focus on quality, not quantity.