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Who regulates social media? That question is harder to answer than you might think. For one, there is not a specific federal regulator or agency that is in charge of regulating social media. Instead, there is a confusing patchwork quilt of federal regulators, state legislators, foreign regulators, and Congress. Oh, and the U.S. Justice Department also occasionally gets into the act as well. This system might have worked when social media was just a niche product offering. But now that social media giants like Meta and Twitter are now some of the biggest, most influential companies in the world, the system is clearly broken.
The regulation of social media is broken. Here’s how to fix it.
It’s easy, of course, to blame Meta for all of their various transgressions. There are constant stories in the media about privacy and security violations, as well as stories about lapses in ethics. And any time executives from Silicon Valley are forced to visit Washington, D.C. in order to testify in front of Congress, they routinely stonewall politicians with a mix of vague answers, incomplete responses, and just sheer hubris. So it’s easy to paint CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg as the villain.
But what if I told you that Facebook must deal with a confusing mix of regulators, all of them protecting their own turf? And that many of these regulators like to grandstand in front of others if they know the television cameras are turned on? Facebook, for example, must deal with federal regulators such as the FCC and the FTC. It must deal with state legislators, meaning that it could theoretically be dealing with 50 different versions of the same rule. It must deal with European regulators, as in the case of the relatively new GDPR regulations. And, finally, it must deal with a rotating cast of characters from Congress, each with their own constituencies to please.
No wonder Facebook is so willing just to pay the fines and move on. Who has time for all this? Imagine the time and expense that must go into preparing all those documents for Congressional investigative committees, only to be excoriated on live TV when they failed to provide the one key document that might seem important to politicians. At the same time, Facebook has billions of users all over the world. Imagine the time and expense of complying with rules from all over the world.
A simple solution for social media
Based on the above, you might conjecture that I’m somehow supporting Facebook and Big Tech. I’m not. But I am proposing that we simplify the regulatory structure for social media. Let’s establish an expert agency, commission or regulatory body that is in charge of social media, and social media only. This agency or regulatory body should have authority at the federal level that supersedes any power at the state level. Moreover, to ensure that this agency or regulatory body is not a paper tiger, it should have the full ability to create and then enforce rules that pertain ONLY to social media companies.
Is this possible? I think it is. Every other major industry – such as the energy sector, the pharmaceutical industry, the automotive sector, and the alcohol industry – has a “super-regulator” that is focused only on that one sector. For example, the energy industry has the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, which is an independent agency that regulates the interstate transmission of electricity, natural gas, and oil.
Something along these same lines is now needed for the social media industry. The FCC may do a wonderful job of regulating communications infrastructure, but it has no expertise when it comes to social media. The FTC may do a wonderful job of regulating the truthfulness of advertising claims made by companies, but it does not understand social media. As TechCrunch pointed out back in 2020, the FTC regulates Twitter the same way it does Nabisco. Does that give you – the social media consumer – a lot of confidence in its ability to regulate social media?