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Until now, social media has been a largely self-regulated – and some might even say unregulated – industry. In fact, most people probably don’t even consider social media to be an “industry” the way we think of the “banking industry” or the “tobacco industry.” But all that’s about to change after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s trip to Washington, as we could be seeing the start of new regulation – such as the Honest Ads Act – designed specifically with Facebook and other social media companies in mind.
Public apologies are not enough
Of course, Facebook tried to fend off most of this regulation by doing a public apology tour. Prior to showing up in front of Congress, where legislators grilled him in front of a live audience, Mark Zuckerberg had been making a series of public apologies. He even made a guest appearance on CNN, where he told the American public that he was sorry. And Facebook top exec Sheryl Sandberg also followed with her own version of a charm offensive, designed to reassure nervous investors and backers that the company had its problems under control.
But it could turn out to be a case of too little, too late. By now, it’s obvious that Facebook never really took its responsibility for safeguarding user data very seriously. It never considered who was actually buying ads on the Facebook platform, or how nefarious actors might use the social media platform to advance their own motives. As long as Facebook was making money from selling ads and as long as the stock price continued to move up, the company’s executives never really asked too many questions. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?
Fixing a broken Facebook
Well, it turns out that Facebook was always a little bit broken. Remember – when Zuckerberg founded the company in his Harvard dorm room, he never intended for Facebook to become one of the most powerful companies in the world. He just wanted to be popular with his classmates. And, as he has readily admitted, he never even considered that Facebook might become part of political campaigns, or that data added to the social network might one day be the subject of endless national debate.
The problem now, quite frankly, is that Washington is moving in for the kill. If you watched even 10 minutes of the live testimony from Zuckerberg, one thing became readily apparent: bashing on Facebook is easy these days, even if you know absolutely nothing about how the Internet really works. Some of the Congressmen grilling Zuckerberg apparently didn’t even know how advertising works on Facebook! (Any social media marketer who has ever played around with running ads on Facebook knows that Facebook doesn’t hand over the data to advertisers for them to do as they please, as some legislators apparently believed.)
The new era of social media regulation
So what does more regulation mean? The folks in Washington are going to convince you that it will make social media “safe” again. They are treating Facebook the way they might treat a Big Tobacco company or a Big Oil company found guilty of wrongdoing – they will swamp the company with fines, force the top executives to be humiliated in front of a large national audience, introduce sweeping new legislation and threaten to break the company apart if it doesn’t comply with every new regulation.
You could argue, of course, that maybe Facebook had it coming, that maybe Mark Zuckerberg needed a comeuppance. But if you think that Washington has all the answers, you will likely be disappointed. The tech industry can innovate too quickly, and Washington will always be multiple steps behind Silicon Valley. If top Washington legislators can’t even wrap their heads around how Facebook works, how are they possibly going to wrap their heads around artificial intelligence (AI), virtual reality, blockchain or the Internet of Things?