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Why Facebook Is More Worried About Europe Than the U.S.

Facebook has not had a good month in America, with dozens of media outlets publishing reams of damning internal documents, and growing calls for the social media giant to be broken up.

But tech insiders who want a preview of the company’s future aren’t waiting for the next revelations to drop. They’re watching Europe.



Frances Haugen, the Facebook whistleblower whose documents have fueled most of the recent coverage, sat before British lawmakers in London last week and offered a game plan for limiting the company’s power.

The United Kingdom was just her first stop. Haugen is scheduled next to talk to European Union lawmakers in Brussels, and then officials in Paris. And unlike in America, where Congress and regulators struggle to rein in the biggest platforms, Facebook is already under mounting pressure from a slew of online content rules coming down the pike across the Old World.

They’re enough to keep Mark Zuckerberg up at night.

For tech companies like Facebook, Europe — whose more than 450 million people represent roughly a quarter, or $20 billion, of the social network’s yearly profits — is at the vanguard of pushing for aggressive new laws to rein in the excesses of the digital world. Its regulators, too, have more than a decade of experience in fining some of Silicon Valley’s biggest names for both antitrust and privacy abuses.

In Brussels, officials are finishing rules that require Facebook to carry out regular independent audits of how they’re handling potentially harmful content. They also will force the company to open up its closely guarded algorithms used to promote material in people’s feeds to regulators. If the firm fail to comply, the tech giant —which recently changed its name to Meta as part of a rebranding effort — could face fines of up to six percent of its annual revenue, or tens of billions of dollars.

In Berlin and London, similar proposals are either on the books or making their way through national parliaments after European policymakers have spent years hammering out the details about how the world’s largest social media company should be held more accountable for what is posted online.

 

Content laws are coming, and coming soon.

Unlike the ongoing partisan divide in Washington over regulating social media, politicians in the European Union and United Kingdom are already on the same page and they are about to make Facebook do something it has long tried to avoid: take legal responsibility for content.

Under proposals expected to be completed by next year, the EU wants to overhaul its existing hands-off approach to Facebook and others via its so-called Digital Services Act. Those rules will make it mandatory for tech companies to immediately remove illegal content, such as hate speech, or face hefty fines. For politically divisive or other legal but harmful material, such as posts sowing distrust in a country’s election, social media platforms must also show outside auditors and regulators how they are stopping that content from spreading like wildfire.

Across the English Channel, British lawmakers are going one step further. In rules, known as the Online Safety Bill, to be voted on by the end of 2021, the likes of Facebook will be held to a so-called duty of care to protect their users from both illegal and legal, but harmful, content — a world first. Penalties for inaction include fines totaling 10 percent of a company’s annual revenue and potential prison sentences for social media executives.

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