Holding platforms to account in 2018: Part One

Late last year a taxi drivers’ organisation in Barcelona successfully challenged Uber’s assertion that it is not primarily a transport company. The European Court of Justice ruled in the taxi drivers’ favour, throwing out Uber’s argument that it was first and foremost a digital service, noting that since Uber was central to the operation of the taxi-like service, it was more than simply an intermediary.

The ruling comes at a particularly interesting time for media companies in the UK. As Jason Moyer-Lee, general secretary of the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain, said:

“Today’s judgment made clear, as a matter of law, what everyone already knew as a matter of common sense: Uber provides transportation services, not technology services.”

Part of the problem media companies have with platforms like Google and Facebook is a clash of definitions. It’s well publicised that neither of the Duopoly consider themselves to be a publisher – they prefer ‘tech company’ – but many commentators consider it to be a matter of semantics. After all, if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and commissions original content for distribution on its own channels like a duck, then it probably is a duck. Here’s why that matters for media companies as they rush forward into 2018…

While most legacy and legitimate news publishers are subject to rules governing their conduct and operations, the newer, primarily international platforms avoid that oversight. Just look at the half-hearted and less-than-transparent manner in which Facebook and Twitter responded to the UK Government’s request for information about potential Russian interference in the EU referendum.

In response to that and other questions about the safety of the platforms, both for brands and individual users, the platforms have been making noise about re-examining their role in the creation of today’s unsafe online environments. But notable for its absence among those acknowledgements of complicity has been any hint that the platforms will become more transparent about their practices and the tech that underpins their business models.

For the publishers who are reliant on social distribution, the power of those platforms to dictate what gets shared or even shown in search results is increasingly a bone of contention. The latest report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, titled ‘Journalism, Media, and Technology Trends and Predictions 2018′, found that:

“Almost half of respondents to the survey (44%) say they are more worried about the power and influence of platforms than this time last year. Fewer than one in ten (7%) are less worried. Sentiment towards Facebook in particular seems to have worsened following its perceived role in promoting fake news, the lack of promised revenue for video, and a sudden drop in Facebook referrals to many news websites since the summer.”

And while it’s always been hanging over publishers’ heads, it’s almost a given that this year will see publisher content de-prioritised in Facebook’s news feed. Following a highly-publicised trialled change to the Explore Feed in six countries that saw disastrous effects on publishers’ organic reach, a Facebook spokesman denied that those changes were planned to be rolled out anywhere else. And while that might have been technically true, there have been rumblings and leaks from insider sources suggesting that publishers would do well not to count on Facebook as a significant source of traffic this year.

Press Gazette notes that:

“According to the figures, Facebook provided nearly 40 per cent of traffic from web publishers in January 2017, but this fell to 26 per cent by the end of November.

“Facebook regularly makes changes to its algorithm in an effort to keep users engaged on its platform, and experts told the Press Association they believed the development represented a “managed decline” on Facebook’s part, as opposed to any kind of accident.”

So while media companies might be transitioning to a subscription-based model, many would be happy to see more oversight of the platforms that have long dictated their strategies. And with precedent of a sort being set by the Uber ruling, how likely is it that we’ll see some real legislation passed that might force the platforms into greater transparency and, despite their insistence that they’re tech companies, have them held to the same standards as other media companies and publishers?

There are substantial obstacles to overcome before that happens, but a few recent instances of bad behaviour from the platforms makes it look like there might at least be attempts to force oversight. The argument about the dissemination of deliberate misinformation on Facebook and Twitter isn’t going away any time soon, and the likelihood is that even Britain’s technology-illiterate government will play hardball over that fact. Damian Collins, chair of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport select committee, has said:

“There has to be a way of scrutinising the procedures that companies like Facebook put in place to help them identify known sources of disinformation, particularly when it’s politically motivated and coming from another country.”

Additionally, a separate controversy about YouTube’s less-than-stringent enforcement of its own policies is likely to get folded into the debate. One of YouTube’s biggest stars, Logan Paul, was rightly pilloried online for showing a dead body found in Japan’s Aokigahara forest. While YouTube eventually reprimanded Paul and pulled his show from their premium line-up, it added fuel to the fire of speculation that YouTube’s stock of content is too huge and unwieldy to be properly managed and scrutinised. An article from Brian Feldman on Select All argues that 2018 will be the ‘year of the YouTube moral panic‘ – and moral panics are known for inciting legislative backlash, whether deserved or not.

Part two of this article will examine the obstacles in the way of holding the platforms to account.

Image via Lars Plougmann on Flickr.

 

Chris Sutcliffe

[email protected]

 

Martin Tripp Associates is a London-based executive search consultancy. While we are best-known for our work in the TMT (technology, media, and telecoms) space, we have also worked with some of the world’s biggest brands on challenging senior positions. Feel free to contact us to discuss any of the issues raised in this blog.