The time has come to reclassify social media platforms as publishers. They must drop the pretence that they are simply platforms and channels for publishers rather than media companies themselves.
The collapse in costs of generating and distributing information have brought many benefits. The social web has:
The social web promised us a Nirvana free of governance or regulation. Trouble is, we're jerks.
Imagine taking your family for a picnic to a beauty spot only to have another family pitch up right next to you. They listen in to your conversations and chirp-in, chuntering beneath their breath. Later they get up leaving all of their picnic paraphernalia strewn liberally about the meadow. Another group arrives at the beauty spot. The teenagers turn up their Bluetooth speaker full whack. They shout at each other over the top of the music.
We have a tendency so ruin open ecosystems openly shared by entire communities. Every item of fake news, disguised Russian propaganda, trolling, snide remark posted online is a pollution of our common resources.
But if we're all jerks (and we are), they are greedy jerks ...
Social media platforms feed on the investments made in collecting information and news made by others. And, so far they have avoided the costs and risks incurred by media outlets relating to ensuring accuracy. In fact you could argue they've become investment funds attached to publishing machines.
Time for a change.
Media transcends business in as much as it provides a vital element in a free and democratic society.
Last month the chair of the media regulator, Ofcom, said she believes internet businesses such as Google and Facebook are publishers.
This is good news for people who want to see these platforms bound by more rigorous regulation.
Dame Patricia Hodgson also revealed that the board of Ofcom discussed how the internet could be regulated in the future at a recent strategy day, although she said this was ultimately a matter for the government.
Hodgson speaking to MPs at a hearing of the digital, culture, media and sport committee said:
“My personal view is I see this as an issue that is finally being grasped – certainly within the EU, certainly within this country – and to my amazement and interest, being asked in the United States as a result of the potential Russian scandals. My personal view is that they are publishers but that is only my personal view, that is not an Ofcom view. As I said, Ofcom is simply concerned about the integrity of news and very supportive of the debate and the steps that are being taken.”
Earlier this month the editor of the Financial Times, Lionel Barber, told the Society of Editors: “Dominant technology sites must recognise they need to take more responsibility for the content that appears on their sites … . They must drop the pretence that they are simply platforms and channels for publishers rather than media companies themselves.”
The big tech giants bill themselves as mere conduits of information who cannot be held liable for that content – in the same way BT cannot be sued over obscene phone calls.
This argument is paper thin when set against the reality that both Google and Facebook operate teams to investigate "flagged" content and remove it where they feel it is justified. And where we are at the mercy of their algorithms which determine the information served to us.
The digital duopoly of Google and Facebook maintain their dominance in advertising by selling advertising space alongside user-generated content. They profit the most from it and should shoulder some of the responsibility for it.
Given that Google, Facebook et alia are mining every last scintilla of our digital footprint it’s hard to stomach the claim that these platforms are truly passive conduits.
Social platforms including Google, Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter monetise, host, distribute, produce and even in some cases commission material.
Sir Martin Sorrell, chairman of the world’s largest advertising agency, WPP, put it like this: “We have always said Google, Facebook and others are media companies and have the same responsibilities as any other media company ... They cannot masquerade as technology companies, particularly when they place advertisements.”
Fake news and the inappropriate advertising placement debacle has robbed them of any plausible deniability that they are media organisations.
And so social media platforms need to be reclassified as publishers whilst also preserving the positive benefits the collapse in costs of generating and distributing information has brought including freedom of speech and protection of civil liberties.
Easier said than done?
It is a Herculean task.
The Internet has fragmented the global media scene. It is straightforward for Lionel Barber to talk to a room full of like-minded peers arguing that Facebook must succumb to the same publishing regulations as his masthead.
But consider the scale of this demand. The Financial Times has around 600 journalists writing from 40 bureau. It boasts 650,000 digital subscribers.
Facebook on the other hand has 2.07 billion monthly active users who create 4.3 billion posts per day.
Maybe in our post Leveson era the term ‘publisher’ needs to be re-imagined. It could be that under current UK definitions the term ‘publisher’ is too restrictive for these purposes and would not work in the best interests of open society. In which case work needs to be done to create a definition which is fit-for-purpose. The status quo cannot be maintained.