Gathered in a Washington, D.C., ballroom last Thursday for their annual "tech prom," hundreds of tech industry lobbyists and policy makers applauded politely as announcers read out the names of the event's sponsors. But the room fell silent when "Facebook" was proclaimed — and the silence was punctuated by scattered boos and groans.
These days, it seems the only bipartisan agreement in Washington is to hate Facebook. Democrats blame the social network for costing them the presidential election. Republicans loathe Silicon Valley billionaires like Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg for their liberal leanings. Even many tech executives, boosters and acolytes can't hide their disappointment and recriminations.
The tipping point appears to have been the recent revelation that a voter-profiling outfit working with the Trump campaign, Cambridge Analytica, had obtained data on 87 million Facebook users without their knowledge or consent. News of the breach came after a difficult year in which, among other things, Facebook admitted that it allowed Russians to buy political ads, advertisers to discriminate by race and age, hate groups to spread vile epithets, and hucksters to promote fake news on its platform.
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Over the years, Congress and federal regulators have largely left Facebook to police itself. Now, lawmakers around the world are calling for it to be regulated. Congress is gearing up to grill Zuckerberg. The Federal Trade Commission is investigating whether Facebook violated its 2011 settlement agreement with the agency. Zuckerberg himself suggested, in a CNN interview, that perhaps Facebook should be regulated by the government.
The regulatory fever is so strong that even Peter Swire, a privacy law professor at Georgia Institute of Technology who testified last year in an Irish court on behalf of Facebook, recently laid out the legal case for why Google and Facebook might be regulated as public utilities. Both companies, he argued, satisfy the traditional criteria for utility regulation: They have large market share, are natural monopolies, and are difficult for customers to do without.
While the political momentum may not be strong enough right now for something as drastic as that, many in Washington are trying to envision what regulating Facebook would look like. After all, the solutions are not obvious. The world has never tried to rein in a global network with 2 billion users that is built on fast-moving technology and evolving data practices.
I talked to numerous experts about the ideas bubbling up in Washington. They identified four concrete, practical reforms that could address some of Facebook's main problems. None are specific to Facebook alone; potentially, they could be applied to all social media and the tech industry.