Facebook’s Evolving Approach to Platform Governance

It’s now been 5 days since Slide’s Top Friends application disappeared from the Facebook Platform as a result of an apparent Developer Terms of Service violation. This suspension is the most severe punitive action imposed by the Facebook Platform team that the development community has seen yet, and is at least in some sense emblematic of Facebook’s evolving approach to Platform governance and regulation.

Throughout most of this year, Facebook has taken fairly a fairly algorithmic approach to regulating the Platform economy. By limiting developers’ access to communication channels based on user feedback, Facebook has been able to squeeze much distribution arbitrage out of the system, and align developer and user interests much more than it had before. (Before allocation limits, for example, it was cheaper to make a quiz application than buy inventory.)

However, there are always some types of user experience issues, like privacy concerns, that cannot be managed with automated systems. As such, Facebook has demonstrated that they’re willing to enforce some policies publicly. Public case by case policy enforcement is a necessary approach for more mature economies.

Earlier in the year, Facebook responded to abuse by outlawing the tool being abused (for example, in the case of forced invites). This would be akin to outlawing something like assault rifles that almost everyone agrees are harmful to society. However, in more complex cases, outlawing the tool at hand is not necessarily what’s best for the system. For example, removing APIs that access profile data from the Platform altogether because of one application’s privacy concerns would hurt the overall Platform economy significantly: many developers and users would be negatively impacted. This would be somewhat like outlawing kitchen knives because they were once used in a crime. Instead of removing knives from society, the better solution would be to hire a district attorney and set up a court system and bill of rights: news of verdicts and sentences would deter many future cases. Of course, that’s a very expensive proposition, and sufficient accountability must be enforced for stakeholders to have faith in the system.

While the government analogy breaks down in many senses (policy makers aren’t exactly elected officials in this case 🙂 ), ultimately most of the “assault weapons” have already been removed from the Platform economy, and we’re beginning to see more cases of “kitchen knives.” Kitchen knife cases are more expensive to police and enforce, but even the libertarian-laden Silicon Valley would agree that policy enforcement is necessary for any mature Platform to be healthy.

Will Facebook choose to publicly comment on future cases, like Facebook’s Director of Platform Product Marketing Ben Ling did on Friday? I’m not sure that they always will, but I think it would help everybody to know as much as possible about what’s kosher and what’s not.

Facebook’s approach to platform governance is becoming decreasingly dependent on algorithms and increasingly based on policy-enforcement. So if you’re looking for a career in (platform) law enforcement, I know at least a couple social networks that are hiring!