Facebook – Technology Platform or News Publisher?

December 28, 2016

Why Internet Companies Need to Stop Abrogating Their Responsibilities

  • For some time now, and especially since the November elections, Facebook has come under pressure to own up to its role as a news publisher.

  • As with Google, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Uber, Airbnb, and many other consumer internet businesses, company executives such as Zuckerberg like to affirm that they are no more than “technology platforms”; presumably they feel that this somehow frees them of responsibility for any undesirable content that appears on their sites – or in the case of Uber, Airbnb, TaskRabbit and others, from an obligation to observe normal regulations, pay local and state taxes, treat workers as employees, etc.

  • The frequent appearance of fake news items, much of it offensive in nature, as well as other adverse occurrences on different sites, is quickly forcing these companies to take measures to clean up their act. But will they go far enough?

‘“Facebook is a new kind of platform. It’s not a traditional technology company,” he (Zuckerberg) said today, mirroring his words from last week when Facebook launched product updates and partnerships with outside fact-checkers to fight fake news. But then he went a step further, now saying “It’s not a traditional media company. You know, we build technology and we feel responsible for how it’s used.” That implies Zuckerberg does in fact see Facebook as some kind of media company, just not like the old ones that created the content themselves.

This is a significant shift from how Zuckerberg has discussed Facebook and media in the past. In August while in Rome to meet the Pope, Reuters reports that Zuckerberg responded to an Italian who asked if Facebook would become a news editor by saying “No, we are a tech company, not a media company.” He drew a line between Facebook and publishers, explaining that “The world needs news companies, but also technology platforms, like what we do, and we take our role in this very seriously.”’

– Techcrunch article published on December 22, 2016

It took a while, but now that pressure has been applied as a result of the alleged influence of fake news on the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, it’s becoming harder for the companies to protest that their role as “technology platforms” excuses them from taking fuller responsibility for what happens on their sites. What would you say if The Washington Post or Time magazine were to claim that they are technology platforms (which is just as true as Facebook’s persistent claim)? They are indeed a technology platform – for providing news – and they are routinely held to account by readers and authorities for any erroneous information that appears on their pages posing as a statement of fact. Of course, they have professionally accredited journalists and editors on staff to ensure that the publication of inaccurate information is minimized or even eliminated.

Exacerbated by the regrettable problem of anonymity in many online sites including Twitter, Reddit, and other sites, the frequent appearance of fake news items during election season exacerbated partisanship and may well have influenced the outcome in one way or another. As author and commentator Walter Isaacson reminded us in a recent article (“The Internet is Broken. Here’s How I’d Fix it.”), among other ills anonymity is metaphorically killing the internet – specifically, encouraging unaccountable fringe behavior from people who prefer to hide behind aliases when expressing their views rather than correctly identifying themselves.

In light of the increase in general fakeness online, it seems to me that it’s well past time to restore some degree of common sense, in order to ensure that people can trust what they see, read, hear, and watch. Insisting on an authentic identity for every user – as Airbnb does today for guests and hosts – along with other measures designed to force every user to be accoyntable for their actions, will help to prevent sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and many others from becoming cesspits harboring users who enjoy the experience of widespread and mutual abuse along with others who are merely trying to be up to date with events or exchange honest views about political or other news events without fear of being attacked by some vitriolic goon.

Here’s a simple suggestion for preventing intentional or unintentional avoidance of responsibility by companies and management teams: Stop describing yourself by the technology on which you base your offerings (who cares anyway?), and start describing your vocation or business by the problems you help users and customers to solve. In the case of Facebook, here’s a hint: What is the name of the single most prominent service for users checking to see what’s new on the site at any given moment? You got it, the NewsFeed. Thus instead of protesting that it is merely a technology platform (total copout) or a “social network” (partially true but incomplete), Zuckerberg and his colleagues should admit that “We’re in the business of providing users with a forum for sharing personal, social, political and economic news”, which summarizes most of what what Facebook does for its users today. True, the nature of the news might be person-to-person socializing as it was when Facebook started life on campus in 2004, but in other instances the news can be more broadly social, economic or political in nature, as it often is today, not only on Facebook but also on Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram et al.

For companies treating Facebook as a place to do business, it can authentically state: “We are in the business of helping companies of all types and sizes to attract customers for their products and services using highly targeted adverting and marketing campaigns.” In this case, Facebook would acknowledge that it is also a business advertiser and marketer, reflecting the fact that today it has a portfolio of services – both free and paid. This would soon lead Facebook to staff its organization correctly in order to manage its business with accountability befitting its real responsibilities. The penalties for continuing to insist on the flimsy and disingenuous “technology platform” defense will only get more draconian. Just today, a Seeking Alpha article announced that “Germany is considering imposing a legal regime that would allow fining social networks such as Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) up to €500,000 for each day the platform leaves a “fake news” story up without deleting it. The law would force the social networks to create offices focused on responding to takedown demands and would also make these networks responsible for compensation if a post by individual users were found to slander someone.

If you want to use briefer statements to describe Facebook’s different services, you can start using this phrase: “We are in the ………………… business.” Thus Facebook could and probably should describe its main user services in this way: “We’re in the (personal, social, political and economic) news business”, and it can describe its advertising and marketing services as follows: “We’re (also) in the targeted marketing and advertising business”, or words to this effect. Sure, the business is enabled by a technology platform, but this does not explain what purpose you serve – i.e., what type of user or customer you are in service to – which is a much more relevant explanation.

Following this guideline and example, here’s how some of these other companies could or should describe themselves:

  • LinkedIn: “We’re in the professional (and business) news and recruitment business.”

  • Twitter: “We’re in the moment-to-moment breaking news and events business.”

  • Youtube: “We’re in the video broadcasting business.”

  • Instagram: “We’re in the social and fashion marketing business.”

  • Uber: “We’re in the urban transportation business.”

  • Airbnb: “We’re in the travel accommodation business.”

As Josh Constine goes on to explain in Techcrunch:

‘The reason this distinction matters is that pure technology platforms receive greater immunity regarding the content they serve, both legally and in the public eye. This stems from the 1996 Communications Decency Act’s Section 230(c), or the Good Samaritan act, that states “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” Media companies are considered more directly responsible for their content. .. Previous statements have seen Zuckerberg willing to have Facebook assume some of that responsibility voluntarily, while avoiding the title of ‘media company’ that could trigger more technical liability.’

Thus, “right-naming” these companies’ businesses is a significant move forward. For a start, instead of only software engineers in the product and service creation functions, you would have staffs of journalists and editors at Facebook and its peers. Uber would have been designed to be staffed with transportation and government regulation experts, and Airbnb would have hired hospitality management veterans earlier than they did. Between these two, Airbnb has actually been far quicker to acknowledge the need to build trust with their hosts and guests by describing their business more or less accurately, while Uber has relied on the “technology platform” or “smartphone app” excuse on too many occasions. To be fair to one of the other major players, LinkedIn has for some time maintained a sizable editorial staff because it has been more clear-minded about its real mission. But consumer sites in particular now need to adopt more complete descriptions of their business vocations and thus their responsibilities. The most visible culprit today might be Facebook but many smaller “platforms” need to smarten up and take ownership of their responsibilities toward customers and users, and the broader communities they serve.

After all, how would you react if whenever a train crash happens, the railroad company involved were to protest: “We have no idea how today’s unfortunate accident occurred, we’re just a technology platform.”