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Meta makeover won't wash away Facebook's legal worries
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What are we Meta do about Facebook?


Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg have become the archetypal villains of the tech world. Bill Mew looks at the perceptions, the reality and some potential solutions to the issues surrounding the Meta rebranding exercise.

17th Nov 2021
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The recent rebranding of Facebook as Meta, like “lipstick on a pig”, does nothing to address the fundamental problems that triggered the change. The Facebook brand has been tarnished by accusations of fuelling social harms and polarisation, and widespread privacy abuses that cannot be sidestepped with a simple change of name.

There is a great deal to learned here, however, if you read between the lines.

Screen time and social media

Perception: Screen time and social media are corrupting our society and our children in particular.

Reality: While the recent Facebook whistleblower testimony was alarming and exposed concerns about research and actions undertaken by the social media giant, much of the research lacked rigour. The reality is that time spent on digital media has been found to be largely harmless, and that the development of digital skills is potentially beneficial.

However, time spent on social media (when used without proper controls) has indeed been linked to depression, especially for young girls.

Far more research is required though to understand the full impact of social media, but this would require access to the kind of data that is only held by the social media giants themselves. This data is currently not shared with researchers and social scientists.

On a broader basis, research is also required on other potential societal harms, such as increased political and religious polarisation.

The solution: First, social media firms need to be forced to cooperate with independent researchers looking into the potential harms of social media. Unlike with research on the harms from tobacco, this will require direct access to their own data and algorithms.

Second, the indication that harms are worse for younger children means that age-gating needs to be more rigorously enforced. As adults we commonly undertake dangerous tasks like driving or drinking (although hopefully not both together) that we would not allow our children to do.

The nominal age for access to social media was lowered by the social media giants from a recommended 16 to 13, but due to ineffective enforcement it is common for children of 10 or less to have access. Regulators are expected to focus on more effective age-gating and may insist on restrictions above the age of 13.

Privacy and surveillance

Perception: Either people bemoan the burden of draconian regulations like GDPR and the heavy hand the authorities handing out fines, or they complain about the levels of widespread surveillance akin to 1984.

Reality: Neither are the regulators particularly effective, nor is surveillance always unwarranted.

GDPR always included derogations for things like national security to combat the threat of terrorism and for health emergencies to allow us to combat things like epidemics. While such derogations need to be limited and subject to independent judicial supervision, there is no prospect of a surveillance superstate here in the UK.

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