Facebook is in a pickle. Its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, who is scheduled to testify before Congress this week regarding the privacy of users’ personal data, is on a mea culpa tour. In media interviews, he has said that he is even open to some regulation. Here, then, is one idea that could fix a lot of the emerging problems with Facebook and other internet mega-platforms as they find themselves in congressional cross hairs.
Many of Facebook’s current problems began when the company realized that people really do care about news, and not just sports, dating and entertainment. The company moved away from its origins as a way for users to connect toward becoming a media organization, carrying feeds that ranked and distributed news content. As social media distribution of news — real and fake — mushroomed, government authorities neglected to give these changes the same careful study they gave to TV and radio when those technologies were new. And yet Facebook and its properties, which include Instagram, now reach two-thirds of America for an average of 35 minutes a day — the broadcasting power and reach of hundreds of radio and TV stations.
Dating back to 1912, America has had legislation regulating media ownership. At first the primary concerns were about public safety, but they evolved into concerns about the diversity of media ownership and the character of media operators. As late as 2013, the Federal Communications Commission did not allow broadcast stations to have more than 25 percent foreign ownership. The airwaves were considered a public good, with restrictions on its use and operations considered appropriate.
But despite its government roots and public funding, the internet has been treated like a private commercial network. Now is the time to reconsider that approach, especially in light of the central role tech platforms play in hosting public debate, providing news and disseminating political ads.
Facebook and other major platforms are driven by algorithms designed to increase clicks. If you don’t like President Trump, you will be served more and more anti-Trump articles as the algorithm tries to maximize your engagement, which in turn increases potential ad dollars. Revenue tied to sensational but phony news articles proved good for the bottom line. Until, that is, people started to complain, prompting fact-checking schemes, which in turn generated complaints about the political biases of those fact-checkers. In our ideologically diverse world, it’s impossible for any single news distributor to fact-check and rank the news with complete objectivity.
Historically, editors and not algorithms made news judgments at TV networks, radio stations, newspapers and magazines. The biases of different editors were balanced by rules that limited the power, reach and ownership of any single outlet, thus ensuring diversity of content.
Now, suppose we looked at the internet not as the private preserve of a few huge corporations, but as a public good to be treated no differently from how we treated the licensing of radio and TV stations. We could create new rules intended to force the major internet companies like Facebook and Google to choose one of two paths. They could be fully responsible for all the content on their networks, subject to libel laws (which they are not now). Or they could operate more like broadband providers that license “channels” to media companies that are responsible for their own content, in the way that cable TV companies agree to carry selected channels. My guess is that they would choose the latter.
To stay in news distribution and yet avoid greater liability, they could step back from the editorial ranking business and adopt a system similar to what the government helped create with TV and radio. Following this approach, Facebook and Google, because of their unique market power in social and search, would each create a limited number of promoted but ideologically diverse news channels that could be auctioned off to responsible publishers, who would in turn agree to stringent fact-checking and content-responsibility rules. Violations of the rules would cost them their status as a certified channel.
Users then would select which channels they wanted in their feeds or allow the internet platforms to pick a selection of those channels on the basis of expressed ideology or interests — political, sports or celebrity news, liberal versus conservative. Search results from the certified channels would be listed first, and posting of items from these sources would carry special status and priority over nonlicensed sources. The revenue model would also be shifted from individual articles that draw clicks to channels that would have to meet standards and could pay annual licensing fees to the platforms. The channels would make money by selling ads or charging for premium content.
Some things wouldn’t need to change. Unlicensed publishers and websites would still operate the way they do now but would not have the same priority and visibility. Facebook and the other big platforms would also continue to monitor individual users’ posts for offensive or violent content. They could, however, focus more on identifying masked and fraudulent accounts. Much fake news comes from fake accounts, after all. As a prod, Congress should consider increasing fines against platforms that fail to verify the identities of social media accounts.
These measures would treat the internet like the public good it is and should remain. They would also return much of the editorial job of curating and ranking content to editors and media organizations. The big internet companies could voluntarily adopt the new system without facing significant new regulation.
But if the major platforms continue to try to serve as full-blown news distributors without accepting the full responsibilities of publishers, Congress should intervene to preserve information diversity and accountability in our marketplace of ideas.
Mark Penn is the author, with Meredith Fineman, of Microtrends Squared. He served as chief strategy officer for Microsoft from 2014 to 2016, and was a pollster and strategist for Bill and Hillary Clinton from 1995 to 2008.