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Facebook goes on offense

Welcome to all new readers, but especially what appears to be an entire class at the University of Or
April 1 · Issue #307 · View online
The Interface
Welcome to all new readers, but especially what appears to be an entire class at the University of Oregon, who signed up en masse today. I’m dying of curiosity here, so the first one of you to tell me what this class is all about gets an interview with me for a class project, if that’s helpful!
Facebook has spent so much time on the defensive since 2016 that it can be startling to see the company come out swinging. But with Europe beginning to peel away from the open web, and American lawmakers rattling their sabers a bit more each day, Facebook is undertaking a kind of regulatory shock-and-awe campaign: a public effort to recast the debate on its own terms, to advance its worldview and ensure its continued dominance.
The campaign, which began to unfold over the weekend has three main themes. The first is to take the offensive: in the absence of global agreement on how to regulate big tech platforms, Facebook will attempt to frame the debate on its own terms. The second is to offer concessions: to generate goodwill from skeptics in government and the press, the company will give up some of its power and revenue. Finally, Facebook seeks to maintain control. Whatever it may give up, Facebook wants to retain the maximum flexibility to continue operating basically as is.
Let’s take a look at how the campaign is unfolding.
It began in earnest on Saturday, when Mark Zuckerberg posted an op-ed in the Washington Post calling for “new rules” for the internet. (If you could read this headline and not immediately begin humming Dua Lipa, you’re stronger than I am.) Zuckerberg calls for regulation in four areas: “harmful content,” election integrity, privacy and data portability.
In each case, the message is the same: we’ve done a lot of work already, but there’s not global agreement on how to handle these issues, and it would be better for everyone if there were. Zuckerberg takes the offensive here by asking other companies to act as Facebook has — publishing regular reports on the removal of “harmful content,” for example. He offers concessions, by acknowledging that Facebook currently has “too much power over speech” and calling for privacy legislation modeled on the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation.
And if the world acts in the manner he suggests, Zuckerberg maintains control. He may have to offer data portability, for example, but he hopes to do so as a substitute for spinning out WhatsApp and Instagram, as critics like Sen. Elizabeth Warren have called for.
On Saturday, Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, published a blog post indicating the company would consider new restrictions on live broadcasting following the abuse of that tool by the New Zealand shooter. Then, on Sunday evening, Facebook announced a tool by which users can query any post they see in the News Feed about why it’s there. (The hope is that if Facebook can explain why a user is seeing something, it will help to repair the company’s trust deficit.)
Monday brought new pro-regulation interviews with Nick Clegg, Facebook’s new head of policy, in Bloomberg; and Kevin Martin, Facebook’s vice president for public policy in the United States, in Axios. Zuckerberg traveled to Germany, where he sat for an interview with Axel Springer CEO Mathias Döpfner and met with elected officials. (Watch it before a mysterious Facebook bug deletes Zuckerberg’s post!) The company also began to solicit input on the development of its oversight board, which will resolve disputes in content moderation.
He’s now on his way to Ireland, where he’ll meet with members of the International Grand Committee on Disinformation and Fake News.
And speaking of news, Zuckerberg surprised the world Monday by saying he might be willing to pay for it. Reversing a position he held as recently as last year, Zuckerberg told Döpfner he wants to create a new tab within Facebook for high-quality news, and potentially pay publishers whose work appears there. He said:
You know, in News Feed, primarily people come to the service to connect with friends, to get updates on people’s day to day lives. There’s a lot of news content in there because it’s so important. But there’s a lot of people who have a demand to want more news … I think there are going to be, call it 10, 15, maybe 20 percent of people in our community, who really want to go deep and have an experience which is — that they can go to that’s all news that will give us hopefully the ability to dramatically increase the distribution and, if it’s successful, the monetization to high quality participants in the ecosystem so that’s something I’m personally excited about.
Once again, Zuckerberg takes the offensive (with a surprise announcement), makes a concession (in the form of revenue to publishers), and maintains control of his platform. Publishers’ news will still appear on Zuckerberg’s terms, in the tab and placement of his choosing. Döpfner valiantly pushes Zuckerberg on letting publishers use Facebook to develop a direct relationship with their customers — but the company may never feel incentivized to do so.
Collectively, these announcements point to a company that, for all its struggles over the past couple years, has arrived at a coherent strategy for managing the regulation it sees coming. The power lies with lawmakers, but many of them are still struggling to understand the issues at play — and the trade-offs involved are so complicated that untangling them all will take years. (See this good Twitter thread for some of the trade-offs involved in policing “harmful content,” which I’ve been putting in scare quotes here for a reason.)
Chaos, as we learned from a certain show about to come back for its final season, is a ladder. To watch Facebook’s regulatory offensive over the weekend was to see Mark Zuckerberg scrambling up it.

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