Zuckerberg warns against spread of Chinese-style internet regulations

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg warned against the spread of China's internet regulation model, saying it disregards human rights, during an online debate with the EU's Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton on Monday.

“That [spread] is really dangerous. I worry about that kind of model spreading to other countries,” Zuckerberg said, referring to countries that might be influenced by China's example.

“The best antidote is having a clear regulatory framework that comes out of Western democratic countries and can become a standard around the world,” he added at the online event organized by the Centre on Regulation in Europe (CERRE).

It’s not the first time the CEO, who recently turned 36, has criticized China’s regulatory model. In October last year, he slammed what he referred to as Chinese censorship, accusing Facebook rival TikTok of complying with government censorship of messages about Hong Kong protests. (TikTok has denied this.)
Since the pandemic hit, Zuckerberg has tried to rebrand Facebook as a responsible actor willing to help communities by proactively fighting disinformation, helping SMEs with a $100 million grant program and providing funding to local newspapers affected by the crisis.

While Breton dismissed Zuckerberg’s plans for platform regulation when they first met in February, the tone has slightly shifted since. The EU commissioner praised Facebook’s recently announced Oversight Board, a group of independent experts and former lawmakers who will act as Facebook's supreme court for content moderation disputes.

Breton called for a new governance model between platforms and institutions. “This is really what I’m trying to build,” he said. “The less I will regulate, the better ... because we’ll be able to act faster. But at the end of the day, if we can’t find a way, we will regulate."

Zuckerberg said he was in favor of “deeper cooperation and partnership with democratic institutions,” acknowledging a need for regulation.

“The question is whose [regulatory] framework is going to win around the world,” Zuckerberg said, opposing a Western, democratic model against China’s. “That’s going to get decided in the next five to 10 years. A lot of other countries are looking at China and the companies coming out of there.

“One of the things I’ve appreciated about the Europeans is that when the EU sets policies, it becomes a standard around the world,” he added, referring to Europe’s flagship privacy reform that came into force almost two years ago.

And the EU has plenty of upcoming platform regulations in store.

The Commission is preparing for the end of the year or early next year the Digital Services Act, a package of laws on how companies police illegal content online that will also include ex-ante requirements for so-called gatekeeper platforms. The future laws will target Facebook.

“It worked very well for telecoms and we will do the same with platforms, who can play a very important role. Mark spoke about SMEs, it’s my role to ensure that SMEs have access [to the internal market],” Breton said.

The two men are no strangers: They had already met in Brussels in February, when Zuckerberg came to present his plans for platform regulation to Commission powerhouses, including Executive Vice President for Digital Margrethe Vestager and VP for Values and Transparency Věra Jourová.

At the time, Breton had dismissed Zuckerberg's suggestions on ways to regulate online content, saying they were "too low in terms of responsibility and regulation [and] there is nothing on market power.”
Since then, Breton has praised Facebook’s voluntary efforts during the crisis, for example when the company agreed to help prevent traffic congestion by reducing the quality of videos. Zuckerberg also handed out praise to Breton, crediting him for starting a worldwide push to reduce bandwidth. The two men have been in regular contact since February, including via the Facebook-owned messaging service WhatsApp.

According to Breton, there is room for self-regulation, but platforms need to be up to the task. He called on Facebook to “anticipate what could create some bad reaction, which would force us to regulate,” mentioning tax avoidance.

“Be careful with our internal market, be careful with our democracy, be careful with disinformation,” the commissioner told Zuckerberg.

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