In the early ages of the Internet, due to its open environment, the trust between users, and its decentralization, the structure of the Internet was more decentralized, which allowed the Internet to be a zone of freedom and made it difficult for even the most controlling regimes to isolate their citizens from the rest of the world (Ananthaswamy, 2011). This context has made the Internet globally accessible. While some countries, such as China, restricted national access to outside platforms in the past, a growing number of countries have tightened their regulations on the Internet and media in recent years, and platform regulation has demonstrated a nationalized state, such as the bans on TikTok in the United States and India. Within the shadow of platform regulation, the open and liberal atmosphere of the early days of the Internet has been diminishing, and the trend of the splinternet has been reinforced. This article will use Facebook as a case study to argue that the government’s excessive platform regulation causes the current splinternet. In contrast, platforms and third-party organizations should strengthen the regulation to balance the intensification of the splinternet.
Regulatory pressure on Facebook in different countries
As of January 2023, Facebook has the most users worldwide compared to other social media (Dixon, 2023). As a platform from the United States, Facebook has changed people’s living style and, at the same time, made users rely on it. In some countries, there is a trend that technology giants like Facebook increasingly run everything with centralization (Lemley, 2021b). Many countries recognize this and begin to take relevant measures, which could also explain why the distribution of Facebook users is uneven around the world.
China can be considered a prime example of a country where government regulation has limited the entry of external applications and tech companies into the market, including Facebook. At the same time, local social media with similar functionality to Facebook has rapidly taken over the Chinese market. Countries like Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia are buying into the Chinese model. The companies running the internet in those countries will increasingly be the WeChat of the world rather than Facebook (Lemley, 2021b).
The Australian government is remaining cautious in its Facebook regulation. When faced with the flaws of Facebook’s artificial intelligence algorithms and the problems caused by its algorithms, such as the lack of transparency of its advertising and news algorithms and the hate speech and terrorism published and disseminated on the platform, the Australian government has taken legislative and other relevant actions. However, these laws will not have a negative impact on Facebook. Indeed, US laws provide American tech companies with powerful protections from defamation penalties incurred internationally (Spry, 2021).
- United States
As mentioned above, the United States has established the Communications Decency Act Section 230 to protect Facebook. However, with the adverse incidents on Facebook, such as the spread of extremism, election rigging, and fake news, people began to recognize the pitfalls of Facebook’s sheer size and market dominance and calls to tighten the rules on big tech (Gani, 2021). Meanwhile, relative laws like the Algorithmic Justice and Online Platform Transparency Act continue to push for legislation to regulate platforms and thus maintain algorithmic transparency.
Those three countries mentioned above represent three different approaches to regulating Facebook. China has directly prevented Facebook from entering the Chinese market, generating platforms that could replace Facebook, which has also entered the markets of other countries. Australia, however, does not have a local platform as influential as Facebook. Therefore, regulation of the platform is focused on protecting national publishers and users. Since Facebook originated in the United States, while regulating Facebook’s impact on the digital rights of users, the government also provides a certain degree of protection for Facebook’s expansion into overseas markets. This also shows the difference in the level of regulation of the same platform in different countries, which makes Facebook encounter varying degrees of geographic barriers to development. It can even occur that the regulation of platforms between two countries is completely opposed, such as the regulation and attitudes towards Facebook in China and the US. Despite the different modes of platform regulation in different regions, without exception, the regulation of platforms has increased in recent years, whether to prevent monopolization or to enhance platform transparency. If platforms are compared to gardens, some of those walled gardens are run by private companies, but increasingly, they are being created by drawing national boundaries around the internet (Lemley, 2021b). It also means there is a growing tendency to splinternet in the state regulation of platforms. Some may argue that increased government regulation of platforms can promote fairness as well as maintain cybersecurity. However, excessive government intervention on the internet can result in increased centralization, such insecure systems thus the government can collect data from them (Lemley, 2021a), presenting a tendency to restrict internet freedom.
The shadows of Facebook’s self-regulation
Facebook also improves the environment of the platform through self-regulation. However, platform self-regulation is about more than just regulating the platform but also balancing the company’s interests, which could produce other issues. Mark Zuckerberg (2020) has also emphasized Facebook’s commitment to transparency, openness, and user privacy as a major technology company, as well as its willingness to strengthen governance and accountability. The company is ready to actively seek cooperation with governments to solve the current problems on the platform. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s (ACCC) inquiry into digital platforms, which ultimately ended in a disagreement with Facebook, demonstrates the contradictory interests of corporate self-regulation and government regulation. In addition to conflicts with the government in self-regulation, the companies themselves will exclude other competitors, such as Facebook’s critique of China and competition to TikTok. While this is not genuinely regulatory and some argue that competition between companies is normal, Facebook’s excesses can exacerbate its splinternet due to governmental reasons. There are many prospective challenges to Facebook’s self-regulation, ranging from the significant freedom of expression challenges posed by some varieties of government intervention, the lack of meaningful policy experimentation and precedent to point to, and concerns about stifling future innovation (Gorwa, 2019).
“Policies for platforms: supporting and regulating digital platforms” by ITU Pictures is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
The new path: Third-party regulation
By exploring government regulation of platforms as well as the platforms themselves, it can be found that the increased government regulation of the Internet while the platforms themselves are less effective than expected, which additionally raises the barriers to the network. The geographically specific Internet produced by the Splinternet is not meant to be denied. However, over-exclusion, centralization, and unwarranted nationalism will undermine the original freedom of the Internet and the Internet market environment. In order to balance the regulation of all sides, the platform regulation triangle is formed through the intervention of a third party with a neutral position. Although there is an increasing number of third-party non-profit organizations as well as academics involved in platform regulation, third-party regulation is still in a weak position in today’s regulatory triangle.
The barriers faced by Facebook can be found by studying the regulation of Facebook. It is not limited to Facebook, but other platforms face similar situations. The growing phenomenon of today’s splinternet is related to the government’s emphasis on platform regulation, the ineffectiveness of the platform’s self-regulation, and the lack of third-party regulation. To balance the three aspects of platform regulation and increase the transparency of the Internet, it is essential to engage more Internet stakeholders.
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This work is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0