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Free Minds & Free Markets

The Zuckerberg Hearings Prove Government Shouldn't Regulate Facebook

Congress is filled with elderly politicians completely unsuited to regulate the tech industry.

In the year 2018, at the height of The Russia Scare, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was hauled in front of a tribunal of tech-illiterate politicians and asked to explain himself. "It was my mistake, and I'm sorry," Zuckerberg told senators who are upset about the company's exploitation (and fumbling) of user data—which, unbeknownst to them, was social media's entire business model.

A number of panics have brought us to this preposterous place: the idea that Russian trolls on Facebook could swing the 2016 election and undermine our "democracy"; the idea that Facebook's leftward bias is so corrosive that we should regulate it like a utility; and, finally, the general way in which social media tends to reveal the ugly side of human nature—which is indeed scary but has little to do with any particular platform.

If one could brush aside the bipartisan preening and sound bites during the Zuckerberg hearings, he would still be subjected to an infuriating mix of ignorance and arrogance. It's true that the United States is, in large part, run by a bunch of elderly politicians completely unsuited to regulate the tech industry. The obvious lesson, though, was still lost on many. Rather than trying to elect more technocrats, we should come to terms with the fact that in an increasingly complex world, politicians will be unsuited to regulate most industries, which is why they should do so sparingly.

Not that ignorance has ever stopped senators from grandstanding. Republican Sen. John Kennedy, for instance, believes Facebook should be disciplined because its users erroneously assumed the service was free. "Your user agreement sucks," said Kennedy, describing a perfectly legal document that had already been subjected to an array of contractual regulations and was probably read by only a fraction of the social media giant's users. He went on to say: "The purpose of that user agreement is to cover Facebook's rear end. It's not to inform your users about their rights. ... I don't want to vote to have to regulate Facebook, but by God I will."

So if a private entity follows the law but happens to upset the sensibilities of the United States Senate, it will, by God, be punished with some nannyistic intrusion or byzantine regulation?

Well, not really punished, right? Because of course the rent-seeking Facebook desires more regulation. For one, it would make the state partially responsible for many of the company's problems—meting out "fairness," writing its user agreements, and policing speech—but more importantly for Zuckerberg, it would add regulatory costs that Facebook could afford but upstart competition almost certainly could not.

It's a long-standing myth that corporate giants are averse to "regulations," or that those regulations always help consumers. We've already seen the hyper-regulation of health care "markets" create monopolies and undermine choice. We've seen the hyper-regulation of the banking industry inhibit competition and innovation. Politicians, often both ignorant of specifics and ideologically pliable, tend to fall sway to the largest companies, which end up dictating their own regulatory schedules. I mean, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina actually asked a compliant Zuckerberg to submit a list of government interferences he might embrace.

The bigger ideological problem with the Facebook circus is that our politicians are acting as if being subjected to an opinion—or an ad—they dislike is some kind of attack on an individual's rights. Not one senator will ever tell constituents: "Hey, if you don't like the way Facebook conducts itself or you're unhappy about its political bias, then leave. No one is forcing you to open or maintain an account with Facebook, much less voluntarily hand over data. And if you're constantly falling for 'fake news,' well, that's a you problem, because the state can't fix stupid."

Yet to assure senators that he could, in fact, control billions of interactions, Zuckerberg noted that in five to 10 years, his company will possess artificial intelligence technology sophisticated enough to eliminate "hate speech" and "fake news" before it is even posted. If Facebook wants to use that technology, it has the right to do so, of course. But many of us who are familiar with the expansive definition of "hate speech" and the people who curate "fake news" think, well, no, thank you. Moreover, the idea that the platform should be responsible for governing the speech of billions of users is not only dangerous but also incredibly expensive.

Sen. Ben Sasse had a good point when he told Zuckerberg that although Facebook may decide it needs to police speech, "America might be better off not having (been) policed by one company that has a really big and powerful platform." The answer to quelling the outrage mob isn't for the government to help Facebook entrench its position with some cronyistic regulation but to let Facebook fix itself or go the way of Myspace.

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  • Longtobefree||

    So if a private entity follows the law but happens to upset the sensibilities of the United States Senate, it will, by God, be punished with some nannyistic intrusion or byzantine regulation?

    Absolutely. Yes it will be punished. That is what the US federal government has been doing so far, why would ti not do it here?

  • MatthewSlyfield||

    "why would ti not do it here?"

    Because:

    No, no, don't throw me in that briar patch.

  • Incomprehensible Bitching||

    If a Russian said something on Facebook, then the election is invalid, and Hillary should be president. QED.

  • ||

    Honestly, at this point, the election seems a bit of a tempest in a tea cup. Team left socialists seem to be tired of waiting for the anointed one to rise from their ranks to lead them and are plunging ahead with forced mediocrity and lowest common denominator policy as planned.

  • So97gc||

    Did we really need the hearing to tell us that or have we not been paying attention for the last... our entire lifetime?

  • Rich||

    Careful, Doc. This screams for regulation.

  • Incomprehensible Bitching||

    Facebook is assaulting our most cherished freedom: democracy.

    Didn't you see Revenge of Sith? When Obi Wan talked about it?

    And that makes Trump Enperor Plapatine. And Zuckface is Darth Vader. And Putin is... some weirdo from that trade guild or whatever. Count Poopoo?

    Wake up, sheeple!

  • Cynical Asshole||

    And Putin is...

    Jar-Jar Binks?

  • $park¥ leftist poser||

    There are a number of theories that he is the true evil mastermind behind the war.

  • Marcus Aurelius||

    You know who else pushed for regulation while pretending to have the people's interests at heart?

  • Cy||

    Every politician since the dawn of man?

  • What Smells Like Pee?||

    There has to be one exception somewhere...

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Nope!

  • Rich||

    The Phillips Lady?

  • chemjeff radical individualist||

    Grampa's Revenge!

  • Juice||

    It's true that the United States is, in large part, run by a bunch of elderly politicians completely unsuited to regulate the tech industry.

    This implies that there is someone suited to regulate industry.

  • Shirley Knott||

    ^THIS

  • John||

    I remember during the heady days of the early Obama administration, they did the auto bailout and some doofus Obama official was sent out to Detroit to administer it and said without a trace of irony "I am going to go out and learn the auto business". Someone who admitted they knew nothing about the industry was being sent out to effectively run it for the government.

  • Joe_JP||

    This is a libertarian publication. Not one that promotes anarchy. It does accept industry is subject to some regulations.

  • Joe_JP||

    This is a libertarian publication. Not one that promotes anarchy. It does accept industry is subject to some regulations.

  • ||

    I'm commenting on Hit & Run in order to buy sex.

    Anybody got a problem with that? I'm asking you, FOSTA/SESTA!

  • Chipper Jones||

    "Kidnney donation" guy above put his phone number out there for you.

  • ||

    Unless I have an orgasm when they remove my "kidnney" (two syllables or three?), I'm not interested.

  • Enjoy Every Sandwich||

    Rather than trying to elect more technocrats, we should come to terms with the fact that in an increasingly complex world, politicians will be unsuited to regulate most industries, which is why they should do so sparingly.

    The world has always been too complex to be regulated by a handful of old guys. That's one of the reasons behind the very limited list of enumerated powers for Congress that is Article 1 Section 8. Even if the congresscritters were both well educated and wise (and few if any of them are or ever will be) there's no possible way they could know everything.

    But of course we ignore that part of the Constitution just like we ignore the rest of it. So we have firearms regulations being written by people who have never even seen a real gun and couldn't explain how one works, healthcare insurance regulations written by people who know nothing about either healthcare or insurance, and tech regulations being written by people who can hardly send an email without fucking it up.

  • ||

    The world has always been too complex to be regulated by a handful of old guys.

    Old, young, one, handful, men, women, other... regulating the world necessitates slavery inherently.

  • arbe59||

    I do appreciate the fact that politicians' lack of domain competence was on such stark display in this case. When discussing industries like finance, politicians in Washington can at least speak competently enough to convince most voting Americans that they know what they're talking about, so it's easy for voters to believe politicians are the ones doing the regulating.

    It's always the case that regulators must seek expertise and regulatory help from "experts", and seemingly the only place to get it is from the industry which they are trying to regulate, providing the necessary opportunity which the largest firms in that industry welcome to use as a hammer against present and future competition.

    Here we all know this, but when speaking with liberals who embrace the idea of any regulation a person can propose, it's difficult to get them to consider that regulatory capture is inherently built into the idea of economic regulation. They often acknowledge that in some cases, because of the magic evil of some corporations, regulatory capture does happen, but they see it as an outside intrusion from private enterprise into an otherwise well-intended and noble activity of government to protect consumers.

  • ||

    Here we all know this, but when speaking with liberals who embrace the idea of any regulation a person can propose, it's difficult to get them to consider that regulatory capture is inherently built into the idea of economic regulation.

    In my experience (and this applies to both sides of the aisle but more to the left on this issue), these liberals will simply dismiss a regulator's lack of understanding for a 'spirit of regulation' and/or substitute their own (lack of) understanding. Much the way Zuckerberg did.

  • Joe_JP||

    Does this lack of expertise escape conservatives when they want to regulate?

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Of course not.

  • arbe59||

    Certainly it does not escape conservatives either. I only point out liberals because most of them worship at the very altar of gov't economic regulation, because corporations are inherently evil and will cause harms to all of humanity out of their own greed if allowed to. And to them, there's nothing other than government regulation (certainly not MARKET regulation) that's going to save us.

    Conservatives, despite occasionally talking a good game about limited government and respect for free markets, are ideologically inconsistent most of the time and will absolutely embrace economic regulation if it suits their short-term desires in the moment. They do the same thing with respect to federalism.

  • ||

    Does this lack of expertise escape conservatives when they want to regulate?

    Why? Are republicans trying to impeach Clinton and silence Facebook because they think Russians helped her with the election?

  • Earth Skeptic||

    "Your user agreement sucks," said Kennedy, describing a perfectly legal document that had already been subjected to an array of contractual regulations and was probably read by only a fraction of the social media giant's users.

    Facebook could create a 100 word user agreement, with an emphasis on how they will fuck every user up the ass (and make them pay for it), and require users to click "I Agree" every day, and millions of people would still happily go along.

  • ||

    Yup. And not just Facebook. Without fail, every time I skim/read an EULA in front of anyone, I get a reaction like I just beamed into the chair next to them and am speaking "Hello computer!" into the mouse.

  • John||

    I think companies like Google and Facebook kicking conservatives off their platform is a real problem. Google has gotten so big that it can just buy out and absorb any competitor that is a threat or provides a content-neutral platform. I don't see how the market solves for that.

    I find the idea of Google and Facebook selling people's information being some kind of a treat to be absurd. First of all, the information isn't as valuable as people think it is. It doesn't change anyone's opinion. It just tells companies how to confirm whatever opinion people already have. And if you have a problem with Facebook selling your information, don't go on facebook. They can only sell your information if you give it to them. I can't for the life of me understand why people are upset about this, other than they suddenly discovered that Republicans might have engaged in advanced analytics the way Democrats do. And we can't have that.

  • Enjoy Every Sandwich||

    Indeed, it's funny how Facebook and the Russians didn't become a threat to Our Noble Democracy until 2016.

  • John||

    IN 2012 using Facebook data was something only Democrats were smart enough to do and therefore just more proof of their brilliance. In 2016, the Republicans got into the act and it suddenly became a threat to our democracy.

  • ||

    I think companies like Google and Facebook kicking conservatives off their platform is a real problem.

    "Real problem" requiring a class action suit for breach of contract, Yes. "Real problem" requiring lawmakers of any stripe to solve, No.

    If Google/Youtube told right-wingers, "We're switching up our content format, you have 90 days to move your content to another forum before we cancel your account and cease monetizing your ads." I'd get, understand, or at least modestly respect the business decision and/or the right to make it. The relatively abrupt nature of "Oops! We canceled your account because you're too right-wing for us." feels very much like a breach of contract or bait-and-switch.

  • John||

    A lawsuit won't work. If I get kicked off of Youtube, what are my damages? Nothing really. Maybe if I have some ad revenue, but that will never be enough to deter a company as large as Google.

    So, the law as it stands won't solve this problem. One way you could solve it that wouldn't involve anti-trust law or regulating Google like a utility would be to give attorney's fees and big statutory damages for an internet company breaking its terms of service. But even that would be hard because they legally have to reserve the right to kick off illegal speech. And all of them rightfully reserve the right to kick off offensive speech. Well, what is "offensive"? It would be a tough case to make. I think you would have to prohibit them from discriminating on the basis of political views to make such a scheme work.

  • ||

    A lawsuit won't work. If I get kicked off of Youtube, what are my damages?

    Correct me if I'm wrong, but a civil/contractual "crime" with no damages is not, in fact, a crime at all. The alternative means anybody could bring suit against any web entity whether they were in fact damaged by the entity or not. Also, I assume attourney's fees and the like would be baked in to the details of any given case.

    I think you would have to prohibit them from discriminating on the basis of political views to make such a scheme work.

    The issue with this, IMO, is that it's just as much vague and unactionable. Plenty of channels/videos that (I know) have been banned were simply gun enthusiast channels. Overwhelmingly, if not entirely apolitical target-plinking and/or product reviews. Similarly, there's plenty of channels where the *only* political speech has been things like a reciting of the 2nd Amendment or factual statements about whether certain weapons conform to local/federal laws. There are, of course, plenty of in between videos that are rather blatant political endorsements by lobbying organizations, military personnel, and/or law enforcement organizations, but I only see downsides in letting regulators decide whether (to force Youtube to decide whether) my show featuring a champion shooter who speaks on behalf of the NRA is sporting is spectator content or political speech.

  • John||

    The gun channel example is an easy one. If Youtube wants to ban all mentions of guns, then it would be fine. But if it wants to just ban pro 2nd Amendment channels it wouldn't be.

    The problem with there being no damages is that collectively there are big damages. Just because I can't show monetary damages to being unable to support the 2nd Amendment on Youtube doesn't mean Google effectively denying anyone the right to a significant platform on the internet to do so isn't a big problem. That is what makes the issue tricky and hard for the market to solve for. The collective damage to society is big but the damage to any one individual very small.

  • ||

    OK, so with this video Youtube can rightfully evict everything after 1:02ish? Which is rather overtly the least political part of the video.

  • ||

    Nevermind, I think we generally agree and are talking past each other on this.

  • Kivlor||

    In the minds of many people the only damages are pecuniary ones John. It's a sad state of affairs...

  • ||

    In the minds of many people the only damages are pecuniary ones John. It's a sad state of affairs...

    Google doesn't control the majority of the internet, let alone streaming, broadcast, and print media(s). Google, as a private entity, doesn't owe you free (in cost or liberty) speech. Google (or other), as a public entity, can't pluck it away from you or someone else nor, once removed, be solely responsible for or necessarily capable of giving it back. There are plenty of other damages, they just cannot be and/or should not be remunerated in kind. Most frequently and generally the best that can be done is to compensate financially for the actual damages that can be demonstrated in/out-of hand and support your ability to use that remuneration as you see fit.

    It would be interesting that, as part of some decision or settlement, Google is forbidden from purchasing or interfering with the subsequent platform(s) of the plaintiffs.

  • Kivlor||

    Google doesn't control the majority of the internet, let alone streaming, broadcast, and print media(s)
    Didn't say they do.

    Google, as a private entity, doesn't owe you free (in cost or liberty) speech.
    Well, you say that, but the laws of California--their home state--may disagree with you...

    It would be interesting that, as part of some decision or settlement, Google is forbidden from purchasing or interfering with the subsequent platform(s) of the plaintiffs.
    This would be interesting.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    "Your user agreement sucks," said a guy whose own organization's user agreement doesn't even exist for its users to read or agree to.

  • Joe_JP||

    I agree that Zuckerberg "hauled in front of a tribunal " in irons so a bunch of elderly politicians (like 53 year old Kamala Harris) berate him like Grandpa Simpson (the public isn't upset at all) is horrible.

    It is "preposterous" to care that Russians are (by breaking the law in various ways, as an indictment already showed) involving itself in our elections and that this in some way matters should concern us.

    Then, democracy itself is used in quotes. Why should libertarians be concerned about the use of our data (without our knowledge in various ways, though maybe those who read the small print would know -- but talking about it even to help us get a clear idea of the whole thing is just left leaning whining) by a platform used by millions world-wide? It's not the government! It cannot threaten our well being and liberty.

    Libertarians support some regulation and something the size and reach of Facebook, which uses commerce and contract law etc. in its business model, will involve some. For instance, if some group agrees not to use their data in a certain way, which if they renegade will affect the privacy of their users, who themselves are using it with certain contractual assumptions, it is something the law can take notice of. The details are debatable.

    As to speak of "the mob," yes. We here aren't the mob. We are above the fray types. Those leftists are the mob. We are superior. We are not amused.

  • John||

    I think Libertarians should care very much about data privacy and personal privacy and not just regarding the government. The reason for that is that privacy is essential to free speech. Free speech matters when it involves unpopular opinions. People are always free to express popular opinions even in the most oppressive societies. So what free speech does in practice enables people to express unpopular opinions. And sometimes doing that requires anonymity.

    The best way to suppress unpopular speech is for society to punish those who say it. Make it so anyone who expresses an unpopular opinion is liable to lose their jobs and worse face the threat of violence from the mob, and you will suppress unpopular speech more effectively than any government. The only way to prevent that is to ensure people can say things anonymously.

  • ||

    The only way to prevent that is to ensure people can say things anonymously.

    IKWYASB, the only way to prevent that is to ensure that the people who naturally facilitate anonymous speech aren't punished for the speech they passively facilitate.

  • John||

    This is true.

  • $park¥ leftist poser||

    Anyone expecting privacy and anonymity on Facebook should have their head examined.

  • John||

    Yes, they should.

  • Cynical Asshole||

    "The purpose of that user agreement is to cover Facebook's rear end. It's not to inform your users about their rights. ...

    That pretty much describes every user agreement ever.

    I don't want to vote to have to regulate Facebook, but by God I will."

    Dramatic re-enactment.

  • ||

    That pretty much describes every user agreement ever.

    It's also a bit of a bizarre dichotomy from someone who's trying to give it to FB in the rear end under the auspices of rights that he's making up and wouldn't really protect even if they were explicitly listed.

  • John||

    The only "right" I can see here is the right to be fully and meaningfully informed of what you are signing up for. In the past, I think you could reasonably say that Facebook wasn't truthful with their users and people didn't fully comprehend all of the things they were giving permission to Facebook to do. But, that is no longer true if it ever was. Today, I don't see how anyone can claim they didn't know or understand that Facebook is going to sell and exploit any information you give them with all the modesty of a two dollar whore working a Shriner's convention.

    Given that, I don't see how anyone who either joins Facebook or chooses to remain on Facebook going forward can really complain.

  • Curt||

    Sen Kennedy: The purpose of that user agreement is to cover Facebook's rear end. It's not to inform your users about their rights.

    Zuck: Umm.... Thanks? I'll pass your compliment along to our legal department.

  • qoheleth||

    "Moreover, the idea that the platform should be responsible for governing the speech of billions of users is not only dangerous but also incredibly expensive." This is to me the salient point. I only care marginally if FaceBook engages in biased post-cleansing. I don't look to FaceBook as a source of political information. Most of what's posted on politics is partisan fantasy garbage already. It only matters as a point of fairness that, instead of dealing with equal parts conservative and liberal partisan fantasy, I'd have to deal with mostly liberal fantasies. Yet FaceBook would be best to take a hands-off approach or they'll find themselves under ever-increasing pressure toward ever-increasing censorship.
    Letting the government take responsibility is far, far worse. We have a First Amendment precisely for the reason that allowing the government to control speech is a step on the road to fascism. We've already taken too many steps in that direction.

  • AD-RtR/OS!||

    You're right, they shouldn't regulate it, they should break it up like they did Standard Oil.
    Of course, if the FTC were allowed to enforce the 2011 Consent Decree to its fullest, there wouldn't be anything left to break up, or regulate.
    Go, FTC!

  • prediksi singapore||

    di Youtube bukan berarti Google secara efektif menolak siapa pun hak atas platform yang signifikan di internet untuk melakukannya bukanlah masalah besar. Itulah yang membuat masalah itu rumit dan sulit dipecahkan oleh pasar. Kerusakan kolektif pada masyarakat besar tetapi kerusakan pada satu individu sangat kecil.

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