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Move Fast and Regulate Things

The international community is converging on one notion at least: that Facebook cannot be prosecutor, judge and jury of its own achievements and transgressions. The calls to regulate social media companies first came from various legislative bodies, then from civil society and national policymakers, then from the CEO of Facebook itself, “to preserve what is best about [the Internet].” If some scepticism followed that was natural enough—was the company sincere in calling for more regulation?—but now Facebook’s Vice President of Global Affairs, Nick Clegg, has suggested a next step: an independent third-party adjudicator for social media companies, more or less.

Is this a whole solution? It’s true that for many years governments have devolved responsibility to big tech companies for addressing some big challenges through regulatory forbearance, lazy practice, and court decisions (who can forget the European Court of Justice telling Google to create, staff and pay for a review board to decide on peoples’ right to be forgotten?). But the key issues Zuckerberg and Clegg have identified (the boundary between something so offensive it should be banned and the protection of free speech, privacy, election rules, data portability) cannot today be considered in the same way from one place to the next; what’s offensive in one place is purely an expression of fact in another. Getting convergence where there is such clear divergence will take long years, but the trust gap that social media companies face today is too immediate to wait.

What about this solution can work? We know a few things about trans-national entities. They can drive consensus-based approaches and help drive a common set of norms. They are epically bad at working quickly and driving lasting conclusions. What’s more, we know that international adjudicators get accused of being unfair, from the UN General Assembly (the Palestine Question) to the International Criminal Court (ICC). This latter entity was set up with the same practical intentions with which Nick Clegg’s proposals were made, but was quickly denounced as a tool for meting out justice according to some pretty rarified (read Anglo-American) definitions. Kenya’s President pronounced the ICC “blatantly biased” in a way that “served vested interests and undermined justice.” Today, there is no new reason to believe that a one-size-fits-all solution will work for social media companies either. What such a proposition can do, however, is help with the convergence on rules for privacy, free speech and the like though—again—not quickly enough to solve the regulatory challenges social media companies face today.

And for the record, regional adjudicators will not work either: regions are geographical designations, not agglomerations of cultural sameness. Brunei and New Zealand often fall into the same region, but in consideration of what causes offence, they could not be farther apart.

This leads us to the logical conclusion that only national adjudicators will do. Nick Clegg is correct about social media companies: they can do many things, but deciding what is right from wrong should not be one of them. Facebook’s proposal this week can form the basis of a long-term, global solution that, given time, can restore the trust between citizens and social media that has been eroded as much by companies’ ambition to provide solutions as by government paralysis about how to manage them. But Clegg’s proposal can only work if the international community uses trans-national entities for what they do well, and creates regulatory structures that can be trusted to uphold each nation’s differences and diversity.

By Gregory Francis, CEO at Access Partnership

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