Reddit CEO questions Zuckerberg’s calls for online regulation

By Cristiano Lima

Reddit CEO Steve Huffman on Wednesday told POLITICO he's skeptical of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s call to have governments regulate how online platforms deal with harmful content like hate speech and terrorist propaganda, warning that such rules could disproportionately benefit tech giants and hurt smaller companies.

Zuckerberg in a March op-ed suggested that governments could “set baselines for what’s prohibited and require companies to build systems for keeping harmful content to a bare minimum” — an idea he privately pitched to lawmakers during a rare trip to Capitol Hill last month.

But Huffman, fresh off his first-ever congressional testimony at a Wednesday House Energy and Commerce hearing, said regulations that could require companies to crack down on harmful content would disproportionately burden Facebook’s smaller competitors, like Reddit.

“It’s natural for Facebook to say something like that because they are big enough, they employ an army of thousands of lawyers who can withstand” legal challenges, Huffman said during a wide-ranging interview with POLITICO. “I think that’s a tried and true tactic of regulatory capture from big companies to stay big by keeping out smaller companies.”

Huffman's comments come a day before Zuckerberg is expected to deliver a major address in Washington on his vision for freedom of expression online. The tech mogul billed the talk in a Facebook post Wednesday as “the most comprehensive take” he’s delivered on the topic.

The notion that new regulations will only help established giants that were able to grow unaccountably large without them isn't a new one. But Huffman could find policymakers particularly receptive to his views as Facebook and other Silicon Valley giants come under fire from lawmakers in Washington and candidates on the 2020 campaign trail. Concerns include the tech titans' spotty track records cracking down on harmful content, including disinformation, hate speech and violent and extremist rhetoric.

And Facebook is increasingly facing scrutiny over its competitive practices from federal regulators, state officials and lawmakers alike.

The Federal Trade Commission and, separately, a group of state attorneys general have launched investigations into whether the Silicon Valley giant has unfairly stifled competitors, and the House Judiciary Committee has set its sights on the company as part of an expansive probe into competition in the tech sector.

Asked whether Reddit is cooperating in those investigations, Huffman said, “We cooperate when people come to us, yes.” He declined to elaborate further.

And Huffman declined to back recent calls by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and other Democratic officials to break up Facebook. “I have a selfish desire as a business owner who competes with these companies to have an advantage, but in reality I would leave that sort of complicated issue to the FTC,” he said.

But he did voice concern about the state of competition in the sector. “There’s all sorts of ways I think entrenched large companies try to preserve their status as such, and it’s usually to the detriment of smaller companies like us.”

Huffman also waded into 2020 Democratic presidential candidates' recent debate over whether online platforms should take greater steps to prevent public officials and political candidates from spreading false or misleading information.

“I think the context that we live in right now means that this is not a simple issue of, ‘What’s the platforms’ opinions on these things?’” Huffman said. “I think our values in the United States are actually being tested. This is a society problem as much as it is platforms’ and a congressional problem as well.”

Democratic presidential contenders in recent days have hammered Facebook, Twitter and Google-owned YouTube for allowing the Trump campaign to post a misleading attack ad about former Vice President Joe Biden that they say runs afoul of the platforms’ policies.

Candidates have pointed to the incident as evidence that major online platforms hold President Donald Trump to different standards than the average user.

As for Reddit, Huffman says global leaders and politicians face the same policies on the platform as any other users.

“Our content policy is our content policy,” he said.