A familiar pattern has emerged over the past decade with Facebook. A journalistic investigation or a watchdog group shows the world’s most popular social network — with more than 200 million users in the United States and more than 2.2 billion worldwide — has broken promises about safeguarding its users’ privacy or protecting them from manipulation by malign forces.

Facebook co-founder and main owner Mark Zuckerberg apologizes for mistakes and promises his company will do better. Some cosmetic changes and even actual improvements occur, but before too long another story emerges showing still more broken promises.

This week, The New York Times published perhaps the most damning story yet. It showed that Zuckerberg and his Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg’s approach in reacting to outside criticism goes beyond a practice of apology, denial and deflection to include efforts to discredit critics.

It also raised disturbing anti-Semitic issues; while Sandberg and Zuckerberg — who are both Jewish — denied knowing anything about it, The New York Times reported Facebook hired a conservative opposition-research firm to link critics of the company to George Soros, a Jewish billionaire who is a powerful advocate of progressive causes and a frequent subject of right-wing conspiracy theories. Facebook severed ties with the firm following the report.

This is appalling. Facebook may have used the same smear tactics and disinformation as the alt-right groups it promised to prevent from using Facebook to spread hate. This shows the lengths the company will go to protect its business model of monetizing private information.

Some thoughtful observers think relatively small steps could protect users’ privacy. Having easy, concise rules requiring users to opt in before their information is shared and allowing those who opt in to see exactly what information about them Facebook has gathered may be ideas worth pursuing.

But any assumption that smart regulation can reduce how Facebook is used to manipulate people has a huge problem: If Facebook were regulated as a media company and attempts were made to force it to do far more in policing content, that would very likely violate what Vox called “the internet’s version of biblical law” — a reference to Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. It holds that publishers (and internet service providers) can’t be held liable for what users do on their websites.

Yet if Facebook were regulated as a tech company — as Zuckerberg hopes — then questions over the content it facilitates wouldn’t even be germane.

So what to do about a company that’s both hugely popular and inherently flawed? Perhaps the most promising idea comes from basic capitalism: hoping a deep-pockets, well-conceived competitor to Facebook emerges. A rival online portal with the same key features as Facebook — but one that kept promises about privacy — could succeed.

In its early years, Facebook overwhelmed inferior competition from MySpace. The more baggage Facebook acquires, the more vulnerable it gets. And if a formidable rival emerges, a Facebook that worried about its bottom line just might stop breaking promises — and start taking criticism seriously.


The San Diego Union-Tribune