A new idea for social media rules

A new idea for social media rules
© Hill Illustration

Mark Zuckerberg called for the United States to adopt a privacy statute in line with the General Data Protection Regulation enacted by the European Union. Congress should take the chief executive of Facebook for his word. However, it must pass legislation aimed at throwing a broad regulatory net around Facebook and other social media companies, which hold a central place in our economic and political lives, and as the forces of competition have failed to ensure their conduct advances the public interest.

Social media companies are certainly different from the broadcasters and cable companies which are regulated under the Federal Communications Commission. Social media companies are the modern new form of digital media that will probably become the dominant medium of economic and political exchanges for this century. According to recent research by Pew Research Center, around one in five Americans read the news over social media. But these platforms face no regulations that ensure their behavior guards the public interest in privacy, expression, or competition.

Congress should establish a new bureau at the Federal Communications Commission to regulate social media companies in the public interest. It would have the authority to protect the privacy for all social media users, supervise content moderation practices with the goals for protecting the rights of users to search and receive information and ideas, and promote competition to Facebook and protect the interest for companies such as news outlets that count on social media companies for business.


The Federal Communications Commission has extensive experience with these areas, having regulated traditional electronic media for generations to protect the privacy rights of cable and mobile customers, to ensure the availability for affordable communications services, to create competition with the industry, and to retain the principle for “the widest dissemination of information” from several “diverse and antagonistic sources.”

The legislation should impose privacy duties with the aim of curbing their power to extract information from their captive users. These rules should require social media companies to demonstrate that their data practices are justified by consumer consent or contractual necessity, require them to abide by rules for loyalty and confidentiality, prohibit them from using technology that is deceptive or abusive, and ban key data uses.

To protect the expression of their users to receive information and ideas, social media companies should face regulations to ensure transparency, including public disclosures of the operation of the content moderation programs. These disclosures would detail such content rules, complaint procedures, and enforcement techniques, then they would also provide explanations of moderation decisions along with appeal rights.

Social media companies should have to file public reports with statistics accurately reflecting the operation of the content moderation programs and general information about the algorithms they use, while protecting the intellectual property rights. They should also have to provide access to platform data for qualified independent researchers and regulators in the form and quantity to permit the current audits of such operations to verify that they are each operating as described and intended.

To promote competition to social media companies, the legislation should authorize the Federal Communications Commission to explore new policy activities like data sharing and portability. To further promote the financial interest of the business users, social media companies should be required to provide service on nondiscriminatory terms and conditions.

One agency with authority over social media companies in each of these policy areas would be able to adopt measures that advance both privacy and competition, while balancing the conflicts that inevitably arise, such as when the necessity for transparency infringes over privacy rights. The Federal Communications Commission has the experience to develop the expertise to do the job. It is time to extend the authority to include social media companies, the dominant digital media of this century.

Mark MacCarthy is a senior fellow for the Institute for Technology Law and Policy at Georgetown University. He is the former vice president for public policy at the Software and Information Industry Association in Washington.