Are We Entering a New Phase for Social Media Regulation?

The US Government made a range of significant announcements last week which could end up having major impacts on how social media platforms operate, including potential limitations and restrictions on what digital platforms can do in regards to buying other platforms, operating their ad businesses, utilizing user data and more.

On Friday, four separate bills were introduced to the House of Representatives which all take aim at various elements of big tech monopolies.

As reported by Reuters, those four bills could potentially see: 

  • A law against platforms giving preference to their own products on their platforms. For example, Google would no longer be able to promote its own products in search,  Apple wouldn’t be allowed to preference Apple Music over Spotify, etc.
  • A restriction on business mergers in the tech sector unless the acquirer can demonstrate that the acquired company was not in competition with any product or service the platform already offers. Facebook would not have been allowed to acquire WhatsApp or Instagram under this provision.
  • A ban on digital platforms owning subsidiaries that operate on their platform, if those subsidiaries compete with other businesses. This is aimed at reducing preferential behavior, and could potentially force the sell-off of certain elements. 
  • Improved user data portability, with platforms under legal obligation to allow users to transfer their data elsewhere if they choose, including to a competing business.

A separate bill would also give the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice a significant boost in funding, in order to help it enforce antitrust cases, like those currently underway against both Facebook and Google.

Really, there are always antitrust cases in progress against the tech giants, and the funding increase would help to address these outstanding issues and fund further investigations.

If these bills are passed, or even if some of them make it through, that will put a new range of restrictions on how the tech giants can operate, while further investigations are also underway in Europe and other regions around potential restrictions on data sharing, due to concerns around possible misuse by foreign governments.

This also comes as the US Government continues to examine the implications of data sharing with China, which includes Chinese-owned digital platforms, and could end up impacting TikTok at some stage, as well as WeChat. While TikTok was able to avoid a ban in the US last year, after the Trump administration sought to force it into US ownership, it may still face a potential shut down in America, dependent on simmering US-China tensions.

Altogether, these elements could force major shifts in the digital marketing landscape, and it’ll be important for anyone working in the sector to take note, and prepare for changes as a result. 

Though, really, these moves come as no big surprise.

Given the rise of social media, and the key role that it now plays in our everyday interactive process, it seems somewhat inevitable that, at some stage, new rules will be introduced to reign in the power of Facebook and Co., particularly as the platforms are increasingly being asked to weigh in on things like political censorship, and their networks are beings used to influence massive global shifts.

That last note may seem like an exaggeration, but with foreign-based, government-funded groups seeking to influence voter response outside their own borders via social apps, and politicians increasingly leaning on Facebook and Twitter, in particular, as a direct line to their constituents, enabling them to, among other things, cast doubt on mainstream media coverage, it’s very clear that social media is indeed causing seismic shifts in the political landscape.

If the rise of former US President Donald Trump showed us anything, it’s that social media is now the prime platform for connecting with audiences at scale, and in real-time – and with 71% of people now getting at least some of their news input from social media platforms, and rising, this is only going to become more significant.

That already has various government officials and lawmakers spooked, while the recent banning of Trump from Facebook, Twitter and YouTube also raised further concerns about political censorship, and the fact that decisions on who can and cannot have a public platform are now being made by tech CEOs in Silicon Valley. That gives private enterprise direct control over an element of politics, which, whether you agree with the Trump ban or not, is a significant issue.

Which is why Facebook has been calling for external regulation, and has even formed its own third-party regulatory group, made up of a diverse group of experts, to address such concerns. Facebook’s hope is that by showing how its independent Oversight Board can help it make such decisions, that could provide a new way forward for broader regulation, and take such decisions out of its hands.

Essentially, Facebook, and other platforms, would rather the rules not be set by their internal teams either – but within the current process, they have little choice. As such, these new bills could be a step forward, but at the same time, they would also limit Facebook’s opportunity to grow, and expand even further through acquisition.

Which, really, only means that we’ll see more Facebook clone functions, like Stories and Reels, and less attempts to buy opposing platforms, like WhatsApp and Instagram. 

Would that be a better scenario? I mean, probably. Facebook’s clones have traditionally not fared as well as the originals, which leaves more room for competition in the sector. 

But either way, the implications here are significant, and could spark major change across the industry. There’s a long way to go yet, but it’s worth keeping an eye on each element within this shift.   

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