Social media regulations might loom on the horizon, but privacy is your responsibility until they arrive

There are changes coming to social media regulations. In an environment where elections can be thrown by fake social media accounts and a seemingly endless string of data and privacy breaches leaves no one unaffected, people will quickly get fed up with third parties owning their data. The result? The Federal government could begin (slowly) to break up large social media companies, give consumers direct control over their personal data, and create a regulatory body to oversee companies who deal predominantly in information sharing.

I recently attended the National Council on Social Studies conference in San Francisco, and I was glad to see the National Association for Media Literacy Education represented there. The need for media literacy in this day in age is unprecedented, especially as institutions like US presidential elections fall prey to social media hucksters and as social platforms build the capacity to spawn powerful, effective new forms of state-sponsored propaganda. And media literacy among the general populous is needed even more so as the mechanisms of government meant to protect citizens from corporate abuse grind to a halt, rendered ineffective by partisan in-fighting.

If people and companies could manage themselves responsibly, we wouldn’t have any need for a government or a legal system. The world would work perfectly all on its own. But since my name isn’t Pollyanna, I think we need some kind of regulatory framework in place to keep things moving smoothly and to discourage individuals taking advantage of the system or other people. Regulation is something that the internet, and social media companies in particular, have skirted for over a decade, and it’s likely that new regulations are coming for them.

Stuck between a rock and a hard place

With the unprecedented growth of the internet and its unprecedented penetration into the lives of everyday Americans, social media companies like Google, Twitter and Facebook are beginning to be scrutinized from multiple angles, including congressional scrutiny into social media’s penchant for fake news and expert-led scrutiny into the effects of advertising-based income models on social media users.

As a result, the kinds of regulation we might see imposed on these companies could take a wide variety of forms, including free speech, privacy, and antitrust protections. What isn’t in question, though, is that social media companies will face some kind of regulation. Naturally, we might draw parallels between social media companies and early pioneers of broadcast radio in the early 1900s. But while the overall growth of social media in the early 2000s and radio in the 1910s and 1920s is clearly similar, the big difference between these two stories is the number of individual operators involved, and by “operators” I mean owners of social media and broadcast companies.

In the 1920s there were just too many radio operators to build consensus about rules and regulations, so the federal government needed a mechanism to manage all of them. However in the age of social media, the big problem is the distilled power that the internet age has cooked up for a very select group of individuals and companies. When a couple dozen people–or fewer–hold the keys to the personal data of billions of people, then the problem becomes cracking open the veils of secrecy that inevitably grow around proprietary systems like Facebook, Amazon, and Google.

What regulations could we see?

First and foremost, we must have a sharper call for the protection of social media consumers. These companies now follow and record consumer behavior from cradle to grave, and they understand us more intimately than any person could. In many cases they understand us better than we do ourselves. Because of the immense power they hold over us, we must have regulations in place that give individuals ownership over the data that these companies control. Facebook should not own our personal information, nor should any other company. Instead, social media companies should see themselves as stewards of our personal information–we lend it to them in return for better consumer services. As a result, they should be held responsible for being good stewards–they should be required by law not to misuse or take advantage of the information they collect from us.

Additionally, recent evidence of the power of social media to influence existing institutions like federal elections might push the government to enact limits on the types of speech that can be allowed on social media. While it is unlikely that Congress would do anything to prevent individuals from exercising their first amendment powers–in fact, they could let people express themselves even more freely on social media platforms–they could limit the types of online communication that qualify for first amendment protection. This could mean that things like advertisements on Facebook are no longer considered individual expression, and thus they would be held to higher scrutiny than something like a rant on a person’s facebook wall. It should be said, though, that any regulations would be subject to appeal, and if those appeals make it all the way to the Supreme Court, regulations on the free speech of companies could face an uphill battle.

Finally, social media companies might face pressures from antitrust regulators. These overseers could prevent companies like Facebook from purchasing other social media technologies. Though there’s little likelihood of extensive antitrust rulings against the likes of Facebook, Amazon and Google given the unabashed generosity of regulators in recent history. However, there are many who have called for social media to be regulated more like a public utility, as telephone and electricity services are. Under this scenario, social media companies could be held to a much higher account than they have in the past, including rules that could give individuals tighter control over their social data, ensure more liberal rights to expression for individuals, and impose stricture rules governing mergers and acquisitions.

What can we do?

As consumers, the first thing we can do is vote with our wallets and protect our own privacy. If you don’t like the practices of a particular company–even organizations as wide-reaching as Amazon or Facebook–then stop using its services. It could be a painful transition, but there are always alternatives, even if those alternatives are more expensive or time-consuming.

You should also contact your representatives in Congress. While it may seem ineffective at times, if we can convince our representatives in government to take action on an issue, we can create real change. You can find lots of resources for getting active in government from groups like the Civics Renewal Network, and this awesome list from CNN gives you a great starter kit for getting in contact with your representatives and getting active in government regardless of your political leanings.

Finally, use the voice that social media gives you. Don’t be afraid to call companies out on social media–even if you’re tweeting about Twitter. So often that’s the best way to get the attention of corporate shareholders, and a little fire might be the best way to fight the social conflagrations lit by these internet behemoths.

Additional resources

National Association for Media Literacy Education
Civics Renewal Network
How to get involved in your local governmentThe Great Falls Tribune
Experts discuss how to “fix” FacebookThe New York Times
Concrete steps for protecting your privacyConsumer Reports

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