Mark Zuckerberg and the Conceit of Regulatory Appeals

In a recently published Washington Post op-ed penned by Mark Zuckerberg, the much-beleaguered social media tycoon expressed his belief that current government regulations are inadequate to the task of protecting a free and open Internet.

“Lawmakers often tell me we have too much power over speech, and frankly I agree.” wrote Zuckerberg.

The piece is riven with similar conceits. Zuckerberg frequently invokes his own opinion as justification for sweeping collective action, appointing himself champion of the rights of the broader American citizenry, who, lacking the preeminence of the Facebook CEO, will presumably never be given the same opportunity to publicly express their opinions on the subject. Even as he bemoans the scope of the powers he exercises, he appropriates the voices of those whom his platform serves. Zuckerberg appears too blinded by his own sense of moral certainty to be aware of this irony. Yet, despite the sense of self-importance implicit in Zuckerberg’s certainty that his opinion is a justification for sweeping and intrusive government reform, the Facebook CEO seems oddly alienated from the agency he as an individual and business owner possesses.

“[W]e need new regulation in four areas: harmful content, election integrity, privacy and data portability.” states Zuckerberg. But if Facebook falls short in these areas, why does Zuckerberg himself not take action to rein in the company he controls? If he, who knows the particulars of his business, is incapable of managing the Frankenstein-like platform he has created, why does he think government regulators will be able to do better. After all, the Federal Communications Commission’s blissfully short-lived Net Neutrality regulations did not craft medium-specific rules but sought to make the 1934 Telecommunications Act applicable to the Internet.

Particularly troubling is the language Zuckerberg invokes. “I believe we” is a particularly pernicious phrase, in which Zuckerberg commits two grave philosophical errors. He invokes his belief as a justification for public action, equating himself to an ambiguous and nebulous “we.” Such language is often invoked when coercive public action is proposed, for it lends a veneer of democratic sentiment that expropriate individual sovereignty.

“I believe we need a more active role for governments and regulators. By updating the rules for the Internet, we can preserve what’s best about it—the freedom for people to express themselves and for entrepreneurs to build new things—while also protecting society from broader harms.” wrote Zuckerberg.

But strength of belief is not a justification for public action that takes from individuals the discretionary powers that are an innate element to their right of conscience. By invoking the vampiric shadow of unspecified broader societal harms, Zuckerberg is effectively saying that Internet users—and patrons of his site in particular—are incapable of governing themselves.

The real problem here is not an inert federal regulatory state but a deficit in personal responsibility. As the “I” invoked time and again in his op-ed, Zuckerberg has the power to effect the changes he wishes to have the government impose on him. But rather than assume responsibility for his own actions, he has defaulted on his own agency and wishes instead for the benevolent hand of government to be extended over him, thus creating a deceptive sense of security.

Indeed, Zuckerberg invokes security as a bulwark of his argument. The bogeyman of Russian election interference looms over the shoulder of his readers. Again, if Zuckerberg is not up to the task of controlling his own platform, he ought to cut it back to a level he can control. But, moreover, he ought not invoke a line of reasoning that insults the users of his platform. By suggesting government regulations is necessary to secure the integrity of U.S. elections, he insinuates users of his platform do not have the requisite mental power to discern political truths for themselves.

Consciousness is the first line of defense in a republic and the best form of election security is not an augmented regulatory state but an engaged citizenry whose individual members are informed, jealous watchmen of their own interests. Such circumspection is impossible if information is restricted. It is impossible to know the lay of the land and to distinguish truth from subterfuge when the horizon is veiled in fog.

Zuckerberg seeks to draw this veil over the eyes of American citizens. He seeks to remove choice and insulate people from excesses he believes they are incapable of handling. He seeks to truncate the right of conscience by elevating societal gatekeepers to a level where they can restrict access to information they deem beyond the capability of the average citizen. This it is infantilizing; it is condescending. And it ultimately benefits Mark Zuckerberg. He has had the freedom to make mistakes, to adapt and grow his business model, a necessary step for entrepreneurs. He is proposing to take that freedom away from others who might one day rise up to challenge him. By doing so, he is effectively imposing his own standards on the rest of the citizenry and subjecting them to a political rule rooted not in any empiric standard of right or wrong, but one rooted in his personal views.

All content protected by copyright. The Politics of Discretion, 2016.
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