Now that Facebook is unquestionably one of the biggest companies in the world, it’s easy to forget that the social network had markedly humble beginnings. Founded in a dorm room at Harvard, it’s gone on to dominate social, commercial, and political life across the world, with nearly two billion users and a huge impact across many facets of modern life.
With all this influence, of course, comes responsibility. As Facebook has grown into the global force it is, we’ve seen governments and regulators having to adapt with it. With myriad concerns including hate speech, trolling, censorship, privacy, and terrorist activity on the platform, there is much to address and integrate into laws and statutes.
For the first half decade of Facebook’s growth, many governments were either felicitous or oblivious to the network’s influence. Progressive governments, on the whole, saw Facebook as doing more good than harm, and representing a kind of innovation and openness that is generally good for democracy. That helped Facebook scale quickly without the obstruction of pesky regulators. But a quick look at the headlines over the last year indicate that that posture might be changing.
By all accounts, Facebook has had some bad press recently. The Live function has been used to broadcast the killing of a young girl, and leaked documents show the network’s somewhat clinical and bizarre approach to moderation of explicit and violent content. Also, the network is still grappling with how to control the scourge of fake news that many agree influenced the result of the 2016 election. While some of these issues are symptomatic of a once-tiny company maturing into a global juggernaut, some say that others are caused by Facebook’s lack of responsibility and accountability on certain issues.
Nowhere do regulators’ attitudes towards Facebook seem to be shifting more than in Europe. As The Guardian recently reported, “politicians across Europe have started to question the role of tech giants in EU member states. Where once there was a feeling that the capitalism and tech ideas coming from the US were good for Europe, attitudes are changing.”
Facebook’s main competitive advantage—and indeed its entire business model—comes from the wealth of data it amasses on its users, which it sells on to advertisers. While that is not unusual for online platforms, the scale of the data held by Facebook means that the network has a unique responsibility when it comes to protecting its users’ privacy. In Europe, where Facebook is regulated by EU laws and well as national laws, it’s run into several problems recently, and has been fined in a number of European nations for trampling on privacy laws.
As The Guardian reported, the fines included: “a €110m fine by the European commission for providing misleading information about data-sharing between Facebook and WhatsApp” as well as being “fined in France (€150,0000) and Italy (€3m) over its use of personal data.”
Financially speaking, these amounts are pocket change for the commercially dominant Facebook. However, the tougher stance coming from governments and regulators should worry Facebook. The network was aided in its massive growth by a good reputation and being viewed as a company that was keen to follow the law and connect people. If governments begin to see Facebook as a wild card, keen to do whatever it wants to expand its reach, its growth could soon be hampered by tougher regulation. This would be especially damaging in Europe, where the company could be prevented from expanding freely in a massive market that spans multiple countries.
As The Guardian summed up: “How and what form regulation of Facebook, Google and other US tech giants takes in Europe remains to be seen. But the political attitude across Europe is changing now heading towards the conclusion that something must be done.”