The New American Experiment

Last Tuesday, Facebook announced plans to establish an independent “Oversight Board” by early 2020. The committee will handle matters related to content-moderation, taking CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s hand off the big red button that decides which posts get taken down and which stay up. This new governing body, which has been likened to Facebook’s version of a Supreme Court, will be comprised of 11 to 40 members and be able to overturn the company’s own content regulation.

Facebook’s Oversight Board is just the next installment in a long slew of attempts by social media platforms to monitor the content they host.

In February and March of this year, Big Tech companies like Facebook and YouTube were waging battle against anti-vaxxer content. In February, YouTube committed itself to demonetizing any anti-vaxxer messaging distributed on its platform. In March, Facebook decided to change its algorithm to make it harder to find anti-vaxxer content. The anti-vaxxer movement is predictably not pleased. The war between social media corporations and anti-vaxxers became a microcosm of the larger conversation around how to treat public sector issues (like censorship) when private sector companies are involved (like Big Tech).

The First Amendment essentially strips the U.S. government of any authority to restrict open expression. In other words, the protection of free speech from the censorship of public governing powers is built in to the very foundations on which this country rests.

But there’s something the Founding Fathers did not see coming.

And that’s the enormous concentration of power that has developed in the private sector, specifically the tech industry. Big Tech refers to the conglomerate of companies — such as Apple, Google, Amazon and Facebook — that have amassed exorbitant influence through their business models. Facebook and other social media platforms have taken on unprecedented roles as private companies: they have become public forums. In other words, Big Tech companies have transcended the boundary between the public division and private industry — this is where the problem arises.

The U.S. government is regulated by rules rooted in historical precedent and long-reigning values. However, privately-run industries do not have an analogous set of standardized statutes rooted in history. Instead, the business sphere was established in the vein of capitalism. However, as these companies accrue power to the point of encroaching on the public sphere, they enter a jungle of systematized checks and balances that they have never really encountered before — it’s culture shock. And unless they adapt, they may not make it out in one piece. (Literally, some are advocating to break up these companies in order to curb their power.)

In a broad sense, tech companies switching up their algorithms to filter out certain content is a dangerously efficient form of censorship. For that reason, maybe Facebook does need an independent board to check its power. However, the question on who or what should be placed in charge of this regulation is still an issue ripe for debate. For some, it feels un-American to put your right to express your own opinion in the hands of another. But the overarching question about the safety and privacy of users still remains. The risk of Facebook and other companies abusing and misusing the data of its users is still high, and breaches in the past few years have shown how vulnerable our precious data truly is.

While the idea of an independent regulatory board may sound reasonable, its feasibility is another story. Through the examples of the EPA and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, we have seen what happens when those connected within industries — coal executives, corporate lobbyists and advocates for big business — start “regulating” themselves. Even though Zuckerberg may commit himself to “preserving and protecting the board’s ability to exercise its independent judgement,” what will that really look like in practice? Will Facebook elect its own Oversight Board members? If so, that is already a touchpoint of vulnerability for Facebook executives to insert their own profit-driven biases.

Naturally, some advocates see government regulation as necessary to prevent future abuses of our data. However, the recent testimonies made by technology CEOs, including Zuckerberg, highlighted Congress’s lack of attention to the intricacies of data privacy and content regulation, both of which are critical issues for any user of these platforms. Furthermore, passing legislation in a divided Congress has proven nearly impossible, especially when so much is at stake.

Ultimately, oversight should be a process that considers all of the parties involved, from government and corporations, to the consumers who use these platforms on a daily basis. By including all stakeholders in the conversation, we can develop a realistic regulatory process that works for consumers and protects them.

The emergence of these hyper-powerful tech corporations thus offers an opportunity for a new American experiment — navigating regulation while maintaining ethical values.

Unsigned editorials represent the Editorial Board (assenting: 6; dissenting: 1; abstaining: 4)