Fixing Facebook Won’t Be Easy … For A Former FCC Head


On April 20, Bloomberg View columnist Michael R. Strain penned an intriguing column about one of the biggest reasons why print media is comatose and why local radio dollars are more challenged than ever: Facebook.

He writes: Many agree that Facebook needs to make some changes. But those changes are a lot more complicated than the public conversation suggests.

Four days later, on April 24, Facebook put a new face in front of its Capitol Hill goals and objectives to help rev the change engines that the digital and social media giant so desperately needs to keep it financially successful and socially relevant in the years to come. Succeeding Erin Egan as interim vice president of U.S. public policy is the man who was Chairman of the FCC from 2005 to 2009.

That would be Republican Kevin Martin, with a newly released mug shot that indeed puts a fresh face on Capitol Hill for Facebook — he’s shed his trademark glasses.

But, it is very clear that Facebook’s focus on Capitol Hill is all about moving on from the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and ensuring Congress that it its privacy policies are within the recognized realm of acceptance.

Martin has had some level of influence at Facebook since his departure from the FCC some nine years ago. First, he consulted the company, offering public policy knowledge and insights to the Silicon Valley juggernaut at key moments of its growth phase. In 2015, Martin joined Facebook full-time, as VP/Mobile and Global Access Policy.

The promotion of sorts could make Martin a highly influential lobbyist on Capitol Hill, some 17 years after being sworn in as an FCC Commissioner after serving as a Special Assistant to President George W. Bush for Economic Policy and was on the staff of the National Economic Council.

And, the new role at Facebook comes 21 years after Martin joined the FCC, serving as a Legal Advisor to Commissioner Harold Furchtgott-Roth. In that role, he advised the Commissioner on telecommunications and broadband issues.

Further, Martin likely has a few friends at this little Washington, D.C. law firm called Wiley Rein.

With Facebook shares at $175.50 and rising in mid-morning trading on the final day of April, thanks to a boffo Q1 that saw the company achieve revenue of $11.79 billion, up 50% from a year ago, worries of a #deletefacebook hashtag attack crippling the company are fading fast.

Even with the negative press and bad publicity, Facebook net income improved by an impressive 63%, to $4.99 billion ($1.69 per diluted share). Analysts expected net income of $1.35 per share.

This makes radio’s fight for ad dollars unswerving. As The Motley Fool notes, “Mobile advertising revenue grew to $10.7 billion, up 60% year over year, and now accounts for 91% of the total, up from 85% in the prior-year quarter. The average price per ad grew 39% compared the year-ago period, while ad impressions grew 8% year over year. Average revenue per user globally grew to $5.53, up 30% over the prior-year quarter.”

Great news for Facebook. But … will Martin be pressed for concrete solutions to problems that perhaps continue to concern Facebook’s C-Suite?

Strain notes that three simple moves Facebook could make are “tighter standards for political speech, user verification, and allowing people to take their social network with them when they stop using Facebook.”

However, Strain wonders how Facebook will determine what constitutes a “political or issue ad.”

He asks: If a foreign public health organization buys Facebook ads to raise awareness about, say, malaria vaccinations, should Facebook label them as engaging in political activity? If users in the U.S. see the ad while foreign aid is an election issue, does that count as foreign interference? If a U.S. university buys ads to promote the research of its faculty, and that research is on politically salient issues like the minimum wage, should the university be labeled as politically active? What if a religious organization does the same on social issues?

Tighter controls on political content may indeed be a necessary change for Facebook, but it is certainly not straightforward. Neither is user verification.

Good questions for Martin, who was a Commissioner on the FCC when it fined CBS $500,000 for a “wardrobe function” resulting in the exposure of entertainer Janet Jackson’s nipple for one-half of a second during a telecast of the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show. The fine was nixed by a U.S. Appeals Court in 2011.

Strain also opens up the question of “bots,” and fake Facebook users. What would happen if a driver’s license of government ID was necessary to open a Facebook page? Your kids account reflecting a birthday of 1996 instead of 2006 would be shut down. Should the same problems associated with a Voter ID law become a part of Martin’s day-to-day worries? Further, what about 15-year-old Neha and her younger brother in Mumbai, who like to use Facebook whenever they can? How does Facebook properly regulate their accounts as “valid”?

The questions will certainly keep Martin, Zuckerberg and other top Facebookeros busy in the coming weeks and months.

Strain concludes, “The wrong moves — by Facebook or governments — could easily change the status quo for the worse.”

Meanwhile, there is still one right move for radio, and even for television.

The topics discussed in this entire 900-word column are largely foreign to the account executives, General Sales Managers, GMs and C-Suite executives in nearly every broadcast media company out there. Why? Because radio and TV represents a safe haven for marketers’ messages.

In January 2004, “Nipplegate” and some Howard Stern broadcasts may have led many to say no.

On the final day of April 2018, with Facebook stock soaring despite the most scrutiny it has seen yet on Capitol Hill, the state of radio and TV today couldn’t be more opposite.

Kevin Martin’s job will not be easy.

Radio and TV’s job is: Convince marketers already to reinvest in the media that delivers the best bang for the buck.

It doesn’t require you to log on, or lie about your age in order to use it.