Look at big picture, not just Facebook, for internet regulation
A view from Phil Smith

Look at big picture, not just Facebook, for internet regulation

ISBA's director-general responds to Gideon Spanier's recent column.

Is the regulation of Facebook a defining issue of our times? Gideon Spanier’s recent column in Campaign was timely but as an industry – and, indeed, as a society – I think we are in danger of narrowing our focus too far.

How to regulate the internet is a defining issue. But it is also a big issue. It concerns the defence of free speech, no less. Clearly, community management is critical to this and, currently, the process is in effect private censorship, which is untenable.

Another way to look at it is to consider the deluge of live proposals and ideas – from a range of sources –that are trying to tackle a host of different issues from different angles.

The government’s Online Harms White Paper is concerned with harmful and inappropriate content. The Information Commissioner’s Office consultation to help protect children deals with the standards online services must meet to protect children’s privacy.

And, from the Furman Review and the Cairncross Review to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport's "fake news" inquiry and the House of Lords’ Communications Committee, there are concerns over competition and even calls for the Competition & Markets Authority to investigate the digital supply chain.

All these issues are very closely connected, but if we only take one perspective, or we focus our attention too tightly on one business or a single platform, we are likely to push other issues and problems into the margins.

We need to look at the bigger picture.

The good news is the debate has moved on from where we were a year ago. Then, the question was if there should be regulation. Now, the debate centres on the shape of that regulation and how best to implement it.

And, reading the response by Facebook's Steve Hatch, vice-president of Northern Europe, to Gideon’s original piece, I am glad to be reminded that the company has acknowledged this need for regulation.

But I would like to see Facebook take this further. We need to see concrete proposals about the shape of that regulation. What does Facebook think is the best structure and way to govern this?

For instance, I welcome Facebook’s idea to implement an external oversight board of independent experts to review its decisions on whether content should be removed, but it’s important to see how this board might operate as part of the bigger regulatory picture. Currently, it looks like any intervention the board might make will be too little, too late in the content moderation process.

Again, the Facebook transparency report is a positive development. But it needs to be audited to have true credibility. Again, we need to consider the bigger picture.

It has never been good enough for people to mark their own homework. But, in some cases, in the digital market businesses have been setting their own exam questions as well.

I don’t often say this, but this entire issue is bigger than advertising.

Yes, advertising is an essential part of this picture. The system where maximum attention drives maximum advertising revenue has been refined for advertisers and let’s not forget that as we consider its overall impact on society.

Again, it’s not about advertising in isolation or a single actor. We need to see the bigger picture.

Indeed, advertisers fund the whole system, so we need to ensure they have their say and I urge us all to ensure our voices are heard – at such a pivotal stage – as a priority.

If we truly believe in the concept of brand purpose, this issue cannot be ignored any longer.  

But, again, I want us to think bigger. This is a social responsibility issue that all business leaders need to embrace, not just marketers and chief marketing officers.

Looking at the biggest picture of all, this is a great chance for advertising to help shape a better future. For everyone.

Phil Smith is director-general at ISBA