Face it: Facebook’s a Publisher
A long time ago in a walled garden far, far away, Section 230 of the US Communications Decency Act came to life. It was designed to nurture the seedlings of young internet companies that were just taking root, allowing them to grow and prosper without the constant threat of lawsuits over the content other people posted on and through them. It’s been credited in no small part with creating the Internet, by giving ISPs and start-ups the protection they needed to put down shoots and (eventually) grow into the world-spanning behemoths we know and love today.
It’s pretty hard to argue with legislation that allowed the Internet as we know it to develop (I’d be out of a job otherwise) but a lot’s changed since 1996. In the mid-90s foreign governments weren’t trying to undermine our democracy online. Misinformation about basic public health wasn’t threatening the lives of millions. Hate groups weren’t using online forums to spread their poison.
25 years have passed since Section 230 was born. In Internet time, that’s about two millenia. It’s almost impossible to compare Lycos, Geocities or Classmates (even if you’re old enough to remember them) to Google, Twitter or Facebook. In 2008, Classmates had 50 million members in total. In 2021, Facebook has about 40X that many people visit daily.
What a difference 25 years makes…
The difference is more than just one of scale. Facebook has become a publisher. Its business model is based on showing content designed to keep you tuned in as long as possible, to serve you as many ads as possible. That’s no different than what TV, radio and print publications have been doing for decades. The real difference is that as an online platform, Facebook has the ability to tap into billions of pieces of content it essentially gets for free to keep you hooked, no matter what that content does to you and society. Without a constant stream of text, images and videos produced by its billions of users, Facebook would not exist. It relies on each of us to continue publishing, because that’s what it’s become: a publisher, whether of your content or that of the thousands of magazines and other publications that rely on the platform to reach the wider world.
Fortunately, Facebook can use the cover of Section 230 to argue that it’s no such thing. To be fair, Facebook may simply be the easiest platform to target right now thanks to recent scandals, but other social media and search giants are no different: Google, YouTube, Twitter and others all stand accused of using Section 230 to position themselves as passive conduits, providing a neutral platform that others abuse.
When our health, our lives, our democracy — our very society — are at risk of being torn apart by misinformation, it’s no longer enough to talk about these media giants as passive enablers. In an age when online media consumption has long outpaced offline, these companies are publishers, and it’s time we started treating them as such and enforcing accountability. Doing so would give lawmakers the ability to hold them to the same degree of accountability that other media have faced for decades. It would be much harder for them to turn a blind eye to hate speech, disinformation and other forces threatening us.