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Editorial: Regulate social media on privacy issues

What became clear after two days of congressional hearings on Facebook and its disfiguring influence on American elections is that something has to change, both in terms of its content and its privacy policies. What is less clear is how to go about accomplishing it.

Start with this: Government has an important role in this brave new world to ensure that Americans’ privacy is suitably protected. It has no formal role in overseeing the content on Facebook, which is its own troubling mess.

As Americans are learning with sometimes frightening clarity, internet sites such as Facebook and Google have gathered vast amounts of information that their users voluntarily surrender for the privilege of using those sites for free. But Facebook, at least, has played a careless game with that information.

Specifically, its procedures opened the way for Cambridge Analytica, a British voter-profiling firm, to improperly harvest the information of some 87 million users, by Facebook’s own acknowledgment. Cambridge Analytica then put the information to work supporting Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.

That’s what is known. Experts on internet privacy believe its not the only egregious misuse of users’ information. But it was enough to land Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg before Congress for two days of grilling this week.

Well-coached, Zuckerberg offered his apologies, but Facebook has offered them repeatedly in the past. Indeed, he has become a professional apologizer. Democrats and Republicans both noted that the Facebook CEO has promised changes before and that nothing significant ever seems to happen. Other observers were similarly blunt.

“When over and over [Facebook] keeps doing things that infringe on user privacy, at some point, apologies become empty words,” Gabrielle Adams, a professor at the University of Virginia’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, told The Washington Post.

Given the overwhelming influence of social media, the obvious risks for misusing private information and the futility of depending on those companies to police themselves, Congress needs to act.

Yes, the main culprit here was Cambridge Analytica, which inappropriately secured the information. But social media companies need to ensure their information is better secured and that policies for how it is used are clear and appropriate.

Generally speaking, government needs to keep its hands out of private business. When it interferes in markets, there is always a cost in unintended consequences. But when private businesses show they cannot be trusted, they invite regulation. That’s where the country finds itself today with Facebook and social media in general.

Content is a different issue. Barring something illegal, not protected by the First Amendment, Congress needs to stay out. But there needs to develop a way to identify, unmask and, ultimately, to prevent the purposeful promotion of false information that threatens – indeed, whose purpose – is to undermine democracy.

That’s what’s happening and it is dangerous.

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