When Mark Zuck-erberg, the chairman, CEO, and co-founder of Facebook, appeared before the European Parliament in May, I suggested to him that he had lost control of his company. As one of the few politicians ever to have confronted Zuckerberg in person, I was happy for the opportunity. But, much to my frustration, I did not receive a direct verbal response to any of my questions.
I am not alone. Politicians around the world have grown tired of Facebook's constant attempts to avoid accountability in the name of profits. With Facebook, the myth of “self-regulation,” long trotted out by high-paid lobbyists, has been laid to rest once and for all. It has been months since Zuckerberg appeared before the US Congress and the European Parliament, and the most urgent questions about Facebook's business practices remain unanswered.
With respect to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, it is still unclear what Facebook knew, and when it knew it. Equally unclear is the extent to which foreign interference through Facebook contributed to the election of US President Donald Trump, and to the outcome of the United Kingdom's Brexit referendum.
Does the seamless dissemination of targeted propaganda on Facebook still pose a risk to democratic elections? No one knows, owing largely to Facebook's own dissembling. Facebook claims to have improved its privacy protections. But, given that it has failed to conduct a comprehensive internal audit of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, as requested by the European Parliament, there is every reason to fear that the upcoming European Parliament election in May will be subject to still more foreign manipulation.
Though Facebook and many other digital giants have signed on to a European Commission “code of conduct” on policing hate speech and disinformation, much more needs to be done. The code of conduct is too weak and does not include a timeline for when companies need to meet their commitments. In addition, far more resources are needed to enforce the EU's new General Data Protection Regulation, so that tech companies can no longer treat penalties for the misuse of personal data as mere costs of doing business.
Europe also lacks a zealous prosecutorial/investigative body that can hold tech companies to account. In the United States, Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election, has handed down dozens of indictments, secured multiple convictions, and demonstrated the need for empowered prosecutors in cases involving social media. It is time for Europe to catch up, first by establishing its own special prosecutor to investigate attacks on recent elections, but also by tackling other crimes that arise from the abuse of data.
Moreover, the EU urgently needs to develop a robust mechanism for tracking and analysing Russian disinformation campaigns across all member states and in every language. Only then will prosecutors and other law-enforcement authorities have what they need to compel testimony and provide an effective check against such attacks. With the right strategy in place, we can prevent social-media platforms from serving as accelerants of disinformation, by identifying and stopping propaganda campaigns as soon as they emerge.
At the EU level, the East StratCom Task Force that the European Council established in 2015 should be expanded and made independent from the EU diplomatic service. Its sole task should be to identify, analyse, expose, and debunk disinformation.
In the long term, though, there is only one sure-fire way to address the threat that Facebook and other platforms pose to Western democracy: regulation. Just as self-regulation by banks failed to prevent the 2008 financial crisis, so self-regulation in the tech sector has failed to make Facebook a responsible actor.
Regulating the tech giants should start with updated competition rules to address the monopoly control of personal data. And we need new regulations to ensure accountability and transparency in the algorithmic processing of data by any actor, private or public. But, ultimately, we should not rule out a break-up of Facebook and some of the other tech giants.
After all, what I told Zuckerberg in May still applies: he does not appear to have control of his creation. But even if he did, we should all be worried about the “more open and connected” world that he has in mind. Just imagine tens of thousands of low-paid Facebook “employees” in India and elsewhere scrutinising our every word to decide what constitutes fake news and hate speech, and what does not.
As The New York Times recently revealed, Facebook is so desperate to protect its business model that it hired a shadowy PR firm to spread anti-Semitic misinformation about one of its leading critics, the financier and philanthropist George Soros. Such outrageous behaviour suggests that Facebook has much to hide. And, as it happens, a UK parliamentary committee has just seized internal Facebook emails showing that the company may have known about malicious Russian activity on its platform as far back as 2014.
There can be little doubt that monopoly control over millions of people's personal data and the flow of news and information online poses a clear and present threat to democracy. Facebook's management has shown time and again that it cannot be trusted to behave responsibly. There is no reason why we, the people, should put store in any of the company's promises to manage our data or clean up its act. Self-regulation has failed spectacularly. It's time for the real thing.
Guy Verhofstadt, a former Belgian prime minister, is President of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Group (ALDE) in the European Parliament.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2018.
(Exclusive to The Daily Star)