Media company or tech platform? The hugely important battle to redefine Facebook

Media companies have higher costs of legal and ethical responsibilities to society
Written by Tom Foremski, Contributor

Facebook HQ

Every day Facebook publishes millions of pages of content with advertising - what's "not a media company" about that?

Yet Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has lately been determined to identify Facebook as a tech company with engineers on a global mission of simply trying to connect people with each other.

Reuter's Giulia Segreti reported on Zuckerberg's recent comments in Rome, where he visited the Pope.

"No, we are a tech company, not a media company," said Zuckerberg, after a young Italian asked him whether Facebook intended to become a news editor.

"...we build the tools, we do not produce any content The world needs news companies, but also technology platforms, like what we do, and we take our role in this very seriously."

But Germany's Justice Minister Heiko Maas objects and wants Facebook to be treated as a media company "even if they do not correspond to the media concept of television or radio".

The European Union is concerned about hate speech on Facebook, and if it were a media company, it would be able to force it to act faster in removing it.

Media defines responsibility...

The battle over defining Facebook's business is not a semantic issue -- it is much more serious. It could devastate Facebook's business model and that of many other "technology platform" companies.

The difference is in responsibility:

- Media companies are legally responsible for the nature of the content that they publish.

- Facebook has no legal responsibility for the content it publishes because it is a technology platform. It doesn't create the content.

However, Facebook does choose what to put into people's news feeds, and it deletes content that violates the editorial policy of its terms of service. Some of this is done by automated tools, but a lot of it is done by people.

This means that Facebook is making editorial choices of which content to publish. That sounds like a media company.

But if Facebook were defined as a media company, it would have to employ thousands of staff to delete hate speech and keep other illegal content off the site. It would have to do this for every country and observe their media laws. It would be horribly expensive.

It's not just Europe: the recent presidential elections resurfaced this issue, and now Facebook is facing mounting pressure in the US.

A Washington Post column by Hayley Tsukayama headlined: Facebook must confront the responsibilities of being a media company

If these companies continue to push their media efforts, they can't then shy away from the responsibilities that come with the business.

Foremski's Take: If Facebook loses its tech platform status, then Google Search and YouTube won't be far behind, and the same for others. It would result in a massive redistribution of responsibility in our modern world.

Media companies daily shoulder the high costs of their responsibilities in publishing content. But Facebook, Google et al, argue that they have no such responsibilities to society -- as is plainly seen in their aggressive tax payment strategies.

Given the rising importance of these companies to society, and the digital global economy, it is becoming an indefensible position.

As governments begin closing tax loopholes, there is another loophole that will come under tighter focus: technology platform. Like taxes, it's about taking responsibility for being a part of society -- not standing apart. It's unavoidable.

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