Facebook released a white paper by Monika Bickert, the company’s vice president of content policy, that is a more constructive step forward.
Facebook’s motivation in releasing the paper is obvious.
The next year is looking to be critical for the governance of online speech: Regulators around the world are considering legislation and rethinking their previously hands-off approach.
The paper focuses on regulatory structures “outside the United States,” which are likely to be more aggressive, given the higher tolerance for governmental regulation of speech than under the First Amendment.
Facebook obviously has an interest in what that regulation looks like. But motivations aside, the white paper is a thoughtful document that raises serious questions that regulators, and the rest of us interested in the future of online content regulation, need to reckon with.
The report begins by listing four characteristics of online content that make prior models of regulation ill-fitted and will require new frameworks to address:
- Platforms are global: Many internet platforms have a global user base and straddle jurisdictions with very different legal rules and expectations for what speech is acceptable.
- Platforms are constantly changing: Internet platforms are not homogeneous—each has its own affordances and dynamics, and all are “constantly changing to compete and succeed.”
- Platforms will always get some speech decisions wrong: The unfathomable scale of modern internet platforms—which requires millions of speech decisions to be made every day—means that enforcement of platform standards will always be imperfect.
- Platforms are intermediaries, not speakers: Platforms facilitate speech, but they do not and cannot review every piece of content posted before it is posted—and therefore should not be treated the same as publishers.
Regulation is coming, and almost everyone—including Facebook—now seems to accept this is a good thing. But two wrongs do not make a right, and regulators themselves should not move fast and break things. The questions and concerns that Facebook raises in this white paper are real and difficult, and regulators should take them seriously.
This paper explores possible regulatory structures for content governance outside the United States and identifies questions that require further discussion. It builds off recent developments on this topic, including legislation proposed or passed into law by governments, as well as scholarship that explains the various content governance approaches that have been adopted in the past and may be taken in the future.
Its overall goal is to help frame a path forward—taking into consideration the views not only of policymakers and private companies, but also civil society and the people who use Facebook’s platform and services.
This debate will be central to shaping the character of the internet for decades to come. If designed well, new frameworks for regulating harmful content can contribute to the internet’s continued success by articulating clear, predictable, and balanced ways for government, companies, and civil society to share responsibilities and work together. Designed poorly, these efforts may stifle expression, slow innovation, and create the wrong incentives for platforms.