This originally appeared on the blog of my employer, Public Knowledge.
Frances Haugen, the (hopefully first of many) Facebook whistleblower, made one thing abundantly clear this week in both her 60 Minutes interview and her Senate Hearing: The United States needs a specialized agency to oversee digital platforms. Antitrust enforcement alone is not enough. Breaking up Facebook would solve some problems, but without additional oversight it will also produce a bunch of smaller companies all running algorithms that maximize engagement regardless of the harm to society (something I have called the “Starfish Problem” — tear up a starfish and the pieces regenerate into lots of smaller starfish). Companies, Haugen warned, “will always put profits over people.” Haugen further emphasized that effectively regulating Facebook (and other digital platforms) requires specialized expertise about the sector. “Right now, the only people in the world trained to analyze these experiences are people who grew up inside of Facebook,” Haugen said. We don’t just need new laws, or to expand the Federal Trade Commission. As Haugen stressed multiple times, we need a specialized, sector-specific regulator to do the job right.
Back in May, Facebook V.P. of Global Public Affairs Nick Clegg wrote an op-ed also calling for the creation of a digital regulator. “Finally,” writes Clegg, “the U.S. could create a new digital regulator. Not only would a new regulator be able to navigate the competing trade-offs in the digital space, it would be able to join the dots between issues like content, data, and economic impact — much like the Federal Communications Commission has successfully exercised regulatory oversight over telecoms and media.”
How do these two diametrically opposed people arrive at the same recommendation? Does the fact that Facebook also says it wants a regulator automatically make it a bad idea? Given that Public Knowledge has repeatedly pushed for a sector-specific regulator since 2018, we obviously don’t think so. But if a sector-specific regulator is the right answer, why is Facebook also pushing for a digital regulator?